Saturday, January 06, 2007

Purim In, Chanukah Out?

I have always wondered why it was that Sefer HaMacabi was relegated to Apocrypha (sifrei chitzonim), yet Megillas Esther became part of the official Canon (kesav.) The commemoration of both events are mitzvos d’rabonnin (rabbinical observances), but only Purim was, in some respect, elevated to the status on d’oraysa (Torah level) by virtue of being included among the Kesuvim. It is true that the halachic standard for writing the Megilla is not as tight as for Sifrei Torah, tefillin, or mezuzos due to God’s name being kept absent from the Megilla, but nonetheless, it is treated with a similar level of kedushah v’kavod.

Could one say that Purim, which is d’rabonnin, became a little bit more like d’oraysa and Chanukah, also d’rabonnin, became perhaps a little bit less than even d’rabonnin, having been shunned somewhat in 70 AD?


Chanukah is a time of tremendous spiritual significance in what that victory, albeit short term, represented to our people. It just doesn’t seem right that it should not be part of those writings we consider to be most holy and meaningful. After all, Chanukah is an eight day yom tov that reminds us of the reestablishment of our holiest site, the Beis HaMikdosh, and sets the tone for our survival as a people willing to fight tremendous odds for what is important to us as a nation. It stands as a message of who we are, and what will happen to those who push us around.

I don’t mean to take away from Purim at all. Certainly, the foiling of a cabal to eradicate the entire Jewish population of a particular region warrants some very important attention. In my estimation, that is a perfect excuse to throw a one hell of a party. Chazal tell us that the difference between Purim and Chanukah lies in the type of threat the Jews were facing. Purim, they say, is commemorated with ma’achal vemishteh because our physical lives were threatened, regardless of our religious or spiritual commitments to Judaism. Like Hitler, yimach shemo, it made no difference to Haman and his followers what sort of Jews they were killing. There was not going to be any bargaining with that sort of Devil.

Chanukah is touted as a spiritual victory over the influence of Hellenism, and that may be the case, but were the Jews under no less of a physical threat from Antiochus than from Haman? Was having a large standing, antagonistic foreign army on Israel’s soil any less of a threat than was a secret plot hatched by one aristocratic family and their followers? Even if many Jews did collaborate with the occupiers, was it any less of a problem for Judaism’s survival? Besides, are we not taught that ruchnius is more important than gashmius, and that our spiritual life is more important than the physical one? This belief is the core of mesiras nefesh. So, it still makes no sense to me why Chanukah takes a back seat to Purim in this regard.


Aside from the instances where the Sefer HaMacabi seems to portray the Chashmonayim as Tzedukim and perhaps suggests that they had no idea of mitzvos d’rabonnin, there are two likely reasons that this sefer was not made part of the Kesav. First, according to the Chazal, the melucha cannot be held by anyone outside of shevet Yehudah i.e. anyone not a direct paternal descendent of Dovid HaMelech. This, of course leads to a few really good questions in and of itself in terms of what Shmuel HaNovi was thinking when he made Shaul the king. (Apparently, Shmuel HaNovi wasn’t familiar with Rashi.) It is probable that Rabi Yochanan and his followers didn’t wish to have the question brought up in debate and therefore did their best not to reinforce the importance of the sefer, relegating it to secondary status in the hope that people won’t read it too carefully and ask the ‘wrong’ questions.

Yet, in the off chance that somebody did bother to read it, the Chazal were standing ready with the usual sort of lawyer-like deflections. Chazal tell us that the Chashmonayim were punished for usurping the melucha by not having their legacy become part of the official Kesav. Then, in the same breath, the same Chazal, in response to the question of why the Chasmonayim took the melucha, will say that they required to because there were none qualified among the other shevatim to do so. Well, this answer may have assuaged the curiosity of some, but it leads me to three equally important questions. First, if the Chashmonayim knew that only a member of Shevet Yehudah could sit on the throne, then why did they opt to establish a melucha? They could have easily established some other form of pseudo-melucha that would not violate the standing assumption! Secondly, did they actually violate the mitzvah if there was no meshucha min hanovi? Thirdly, if there wasn’t a qualified ben Yehudah to become melech, then why couldn’t they have chosen a willing puppet to at least take the throne while they run the country from behind the scenes? I also find it hard to believe that there was not among the bnei Yehudah even one man worthy of assuming the throne, even if it be in a subservient fashion. According to the Torah in Parshas Shoftim this, in fact, is how the melucha is to be structured. The melech is a figurehead surrounded by kohanim and nevi’im to remind him of his responsibilities and limitations.

Now, I may not be privy to many of the important historical details and political intrigue of the times, but I can come up with a better reason on behalf of the Chazal as to why the Chasmonayim behaved as they did. It is likely that the Chasmonayim didn’t know who to trust with the leadership and took the melucha in order to keep a rival and perhaps less trustworthy faction from getting there first and creating a power struggle; something the country did not need at that time. Perhaps they really had to do the wrong thing at the time to prevent a worse thing from happening later. Maybe the Chazal were right all along.

Yet, that would still leave the question of why then, the Sefer HaMacabi would not be included in the Kesav. If the Chashmonayim were justified in their actions, due to it being a sha’as had’chak (state of emergency), then why punish them for it? Certainly, there were other instances in Torah i.e. Pinchas where k’nius, even where it violated the assumed halacha d’rabonnin, didn’t end up with the vigilante being punished? In fact, Pinchas was rewarded for his ‘crime’! Pinchas did not offer hasra’ah to the accused, there were no eidim (that we know of), the accused did not respond toch k’dei dibbur, the onesh did not resemble any of the Arba Missos of Sanhedrin, and yet he was amply rewarded. So, if Chazal are correct, then why punish the Chashmonayim?

(One could answer that the Chasmonayim held onto the melucha long after the sha'as had'chak had passed.)

Keeping It on the “Down-Low”

The real answer as to why Sefer HaMacabi is excluded from the Kesav is actually very simple and has nothing to do with the standard sha’alos and teshuvos regarding sechar v’onesh or situational necessities of a newly formed government. It is more about the time and place that Kesav was established, who established it, and for what reasons. For that, we need some important historical context.

During the siege and subsequent destruction of Yerushalayim around 70 AD, some rabbonim had somehow managed to escape the city and ingratiate themselves to the Roman general and his commanders. Considering the violence and persistence of the Roman siege efforts, notable as they were for their ferocity, it had to have been something very important that those rabbis offered Titus for him to not only spare their lives, but to offer them refuge in the city of Yavneh. We have all heard the story of Rabi Yochanan calling the general “Caesar” and then the general finding out shortly thereafter that in fact, the Emperor had died and he had been chosen to replace him. It’s a nice story but without any evidence to back it up. Besides, it is probable that within the time it took from beginning of tale until word came from Rome, that Rabi Yochanan and his chevra would have already met their doom on the short-swords of Roman infantry.

(My guess is that Rabi Yochanan offered them some verfiable intelligence of the inner workings or layout of the city which helped the Romans breach the wall or enter the city by other means. I see no other substantive value in the Romans’ sparing of his life otherwise.)

Rabi Yochanan was no fool. Now faced with saving what little was left of Yiddishkeit, he had to balance the preservation of the faith with the political realities of Roman rule. That meant that Rabi Yochanan could not include in the Kesav ideas that would promote rebellion against a foreign occupier of any kind, no matter how long ago it may have occurred. The Chanukah rebellion against Antiochus was still fresh in the historical psyches of both Jews and Romans and to openly and publicly include that story in the Kesav would be offensive to the ruling governors and probably doom the new Yavneh kehillah to certain destruction. Rabi Yochanan likely felt that suppressing the Sefer HaMacabi was probably the prudent and ‘politically’ correct thing to do considering the circumstances.

Megillas Esther is not a story of rebellion against an established monarch. If anything, it describes a tale of inter-government corruption and deception that may have ultimately posed a threat to Achashveyrosh’s government. The king’s right to be king was never questioned and the Jews never sought to usurp his power or escape his dominion. This type of tale would not likely have offended the Roman occupiers, whose interests were primarily of a commercial nature. The message of Purim, to the Romans, was that most Jews would remain loyal subjects and not threaten a non-Jewish melucha.

Like the Chashmonayim, maybe Rabi Yochanan did the wrong thing for the right reasons.

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