Chanukah in Akedat Yitzchak

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

‘Akedat Yitzchak intends to be a commentary on the Torah. Since I here focus on his ideas, I often leave out the interpretational element, especially since it would take much longer to explain—we would have to read the verses carefully together, to see how R. Arama fit his ideas and philosophy into the words of the Torah’s text (and those are not always fully convincing, to me). Comfortable as I am with my choice to omit those parts of the book in our discussions, we should not forget how he chose to shape his presentation.

I bring up the Torah commentary element because it should mean Chanukkah would have no place, since it does not appear in the Torah (although Ramban found a way to include some discussion of Chanukkah in his commentary, too, as we will see here). However, by searching for key words, I found references which do give us a bit of a sense of the role Chanukkah played in R. Yitzchak Arama’s thought. Although there’s not enough for two essays on the topic (so Chanukkah next year will need some other approach), for this year, we can pause our usual ‘Akedat Yitzchak routine to mark Chanukkah.

Sha’ar 29 (Parshat Miketz)—The Right Place and Time

R. Arama opened the 29th sha’ar with a passage from Bereshit Rabbah 3 which cited verses and interpreted them creatively to say light was created as a good the righteous in particular to enjoy and employ in positive ways. The key recurring phrase came from Mishlei 15;23, ve-davar be-‘ito mah tov, how good is a timely word. The Midrash relates that to light, which Hashem saw as good.

When he returns to this Midrash later in the sha’ar, he reminds us of an idea we’ve already seen, the light Hashem created on the first day was more than physical, was the sustaining force of creation, supports its continued function. The second half of the verse tells us the righteous make use of this light in ways needed for their generation’s circumstances.  As is his way, R. Arama lists ways the righteous make use of light, the first three of which are not germane to our Chanukkah interests.

The fourth, however, is the light of salvation and ease for the suffering, through the agency of a righteous person. Yosef brings his family to Egypt (the topic of the sha’ar and part of the ongoing drama of this week’s parsha, where, as it happens, Ramban also uses the phrase davar be-‘ito mah tov to characterize Yosef’s choices about when and how to reveal himself to his family), who then live comfortably after the challenge of the famine for the preceding years. Mordechai and Esther save their fellow Jews, and Ester 8;16 says the Jews had orah, light (the crucial word for R. Arama).

The Chashmonaim

Now we arrive at the example which earned this discussion inclusion here. R. Aroma says the Chashmonaim (the family of Matityahu and Yehudah HaMaccabi, the instigators of the rebellion which led to the miracles of Chanukkah), righteous and complete people, toppled the accursed Greeks, who sought to darken the light of the Jewish people by taking away three of their central and characteristic practices, circumcision, the calendar, and Shabbat.

He has already discussed circumcision (in sha’ar 18); the calendar, with its focus on the New Moon, reminds the Jewish people they, too, will arise anew in the future (just as the moon disappears and reappears every month, the Jewish people will); and Shabbat points to the future perfected world. [I am sure we will see more on this, but R. Arama here assumes key parts of Jewish practice assert a view of the future, our people’s return to prominence and the eventual advent of the World to Come.]

The Menorah and Chanukkah

We refer to the Greeks’ efforts as le-hashkicham toratecha u-le-ha’aviram me-chukkei retzonecha (in the ‘Al Ha-Nisim we add to prayers and Birkat Ha-Mazon throughout Chanukkah) because taking away circumcision leads to forgetting Torah (for R. Arama, a Jew who does not circumcise will not also have faith in the truth of Torah or its Giver) and the other two mitzvot are chukkim, laws whose full meaning is not apparently obvious.

Here’s where we get to Hashem’s “word at its proper time.” Hashem saw the Greeks’ nefarious intent, and shone the light of salvation (through the agency of the Chashmonaim). The victorious Jews lit the Menorah, a light of salvation and success, marking an incident where righteous people, in their time of darkness, looked to Hashem, and received the light they needed.

Aspect one of Chanukkah: the Chashmonaim find the light of salvation within the dark of oppression, serving as Hashem’s vehicle to restore the Jews’ confidence in the future.

Sha’ar 49 (Parshat Terumah)—The Menorah’s Light Is Not Easy to Bring to the World

Sha’ar 49’s reference to the Maccabees started with the tradition recorded by Rashi about why the opening of Parshat Be-ha’alotecha is linked to the story of the dedication of the Mishkan, Aharon’s being told to light the Menorah daily coming right after the list of the gifts the heads of the tribes gave. Aharon’s tribe, Levi, took no part in those gifts, and one tradition thought Aharon was miffed by his absence. Moshe tells him his lot is greater than theirs, since he will light the Menorah.

How would the job of lighting the Menorah address and assuage his concerns, asks R. Arama? He knows Ramban’s idea, the Menorah here hints at the one of the time of Chanukkah, but does not see why one incident centuries in the future, which would produce one rabbinic commandment, would satisfy Aharon as a substitute for taking part in the dedication of the Mishkan.

He again focuses on the light of the Menorah as more than physical. In his view, the Menorah is made in the likeness (tzelem and demut, the words the Torah used for the ways in which people are similar to Hashem) of the complete or perfect human, whose light shines on all sorts of intellectual and practical acts (as he did in sha’ar 29, which we were just discussing, R. Arama refers to the Menorah seen by the prophet Zechariah; for him, Zechariah was being shown an ultimate Menorah, whose characteristics we do not have space to detail here. In our context, the Menorah refers to the light of the well-honed intellect, which helps in all areas of life).

Aharon’s comfort is supposed to come from knowing he and his descendants will be beacons of intellectual light, most prominently in the incident of the Chashmonaim, but every day as well. He lit the Menorah in the Mishkan, his descendants would light it in the Beit Ha-Mikdash), as a part of their showing the Jewish people generally the direction our intellect guides us to take. Chanukkah becomes a holiday of the Chashmonaim lighting the way for the Jewish people, symbolized by their rededicating the Menorah.

R. Arama’s coda seems to me to emphasize his points. He tells us he has no proofs to his claims [which is remarkable, since ‘Akedat Yitzchak brims with inventive interpretations, ideas, and derivations; he seems to imply he thought all those were indicated by texts, where his current claim is more purely an idea of his own]. He shares his thought anyway since it builds off of well-formed intellectual practices and techniques. In discussing a holiday of bringing intellectual light to the world, R. Arama lets his own intellect roam a little more freely than usual.

Keeping the Menorah in mind will also keep active our awareness of this proper guide for all we do, the intellectual light of the intellect.

Sha’ar 51 (Parshat Tetzaveh)—Memory Needs Regular Actualization

The next mention of Chanukkah comes in the course of a discussion of Amalek, how and why we remember their attack on us. R. Arama points out a discrepancy between the Torah’s prescription of memory of Amalek and other issues. We observe Shabbat weekly to remind us of Hashem’s having created the world (an idea with many repercussions in traditional Jewish thought, including belief in Hashem’s involvement with the world, ability to intervene when necessary, lack of bounds or barriers,), and the Gemara explicitly ties shemirah, observance, to zechirah, remembering its essential messages [in a casual reading, the Gemara links our verbal declaration of Shabbat, zechirah in the sense of our saying some form of kiddush, to our observance; R. Arama is saying the Gemara also means our observance brings us to the desired memories and realizations].

A more prominent reminder of Hashem’s ability to abrogate the seeming laws of Nature came at Pesach, which we observe annually, and we encase our memory of Hashem’s unique Oneness in the tefillin we wear daily.  Rabbis took their cue from the model of the Torah, instituting times and practices to recall important faith events as well. When the Jewish people experienced miracles, such as Purim and then Chanukkah, they set up days of memory, with rituals attached, to ensure we kept them in mind.

Here, Chanukkah is an example of how we train ourselves to hold onto certain faith principles, by putting them into action regularly. [Unfortunately, and a bit ironically, people today continue the practices even as they squirm from the underlying claims of those practices. People are comfortable with parties and lighting candles and so on, less so with attributing our victories to divine assistance. UPDATE: I wrote those words weeks ago, and then in yesterday’s New York Times, Michael David Lukas made clear how right I was in a refreshingly honest—though terribly sad– op-Ed].

Sha’ar 67 (Emor)—Chanukkah’s Contribution to the Series of Holidays

Similar to the passage we just reviewed, R. Arama here is wrapping up his discussion of the holidays listed in Parshat Emor. As a unit, these days express the central faith values of the religion, and then he discusses the days added by later authorities. Tish’a B’Av and the rest of the fast days, for his first example, remind the masses of the punishments which befall those who flout Hashem’s Will.

On the other side, Chanukkah and Purim testify to Hashem’s continuing involvement with the Jewish people during their exile [an issue very much alive in R. Arama’s time; from the pogroms and forced conversions in 1391 in Spain, through the disputation at Tortosa in 1413-14, and beyond, many Jews in his time had lost hope and converted to Christianity]. As Vayikra 26;44 says, even when Hashem exiles us, He has not rejected us or distanced us completely.

Chanukkah, here, is an example of Hashem’s love and connection in the people’s darkest times, the salvation of those days a way to hold on to hope for salvation in whatever times Jews may confront.

Sha’ar 90 (Parshat Va-Etchanan)—Memory, Again

The passage is discussing the first paragraph of Shema, which tells us to hold “these matters” on our hearts always. In line with what we’ve seen before, R. Arama focuses on actions to maintain our awareness of central ideas of the Torah. Actions improve memory, he says, are a prime way to ensure we keep these ideas alive for ourselves.

He tells us what each phrase of the paragraph references, not our topic here. The last verse, however, refers to writing these ideas on the doorposts of your houses and gates. R. Arama thinks “gates” includes the laws of judges, who would sit at the city’s gates, and also the candles of Chanukkah, placed (in the Gemara’s presentation and in halachah’s preference) at the gates of one’s property.

Once again, Chanukkah is a way to put into action memories we are supposed to carry with us.

Chanukkah, A Commemoration of Bringing the Light of Intellect to the World

If you look back at the five references I collected, you’ll see R. Arama sees Chanukkah as a holiday to commemorate an instance of Jewish leaders using the light granted them at their time to shine a light on Hashem’s continued Presence in the world, continued involvement with the Jewish people, a reminder the world is headed towards its predetermined end, however circuitous and sometimes never-ending the route seems to be.

The way to remember those ideas—and all other important ones—is to put them into practice. In action, we remind ourselves to go past mouthing certain beliefs (or, worse, holding them deep in our minds as theoretical truths), and living them, keeping them as part of who we are. In this case, that means taking the annual eight days of Chanukkah to think about the light of the universe and of the intellect, the course of history of which it reminds us, and the ways we are to be involved in maintaining those truths as part of our lives.

Happy Chanukkah!

About Gidon Rothstein

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