A Thought About Maoz Tzur

(Updated again for 2009, and again for 2013.) One line in Ma’oz Tzur I particularly love.

The 5th verse of Ma’oz Tzur describes the Chanukah story. One phrase in this verse is “ufortzu chomos migdalai“, which would be literally translated “and burst open the walls of my citadel”. Mentally, I used to picture breaking down the walls of the Beis haMiqdosh, or perhaps a fortress. However, I found the following mishnah in Middos (Ch. 2, mishnah 2 in the Yachin uBo’az edition, mishnah 3 in Kahati’s — who splits up the Yu”B‘s mishnah 1 into 2 parts). The second chapter describes the Beis haMiqdosh as it would appear to someone walking in from outside the Temple Mount to the Altar. This mishna picks up right after you walk through the gate and onto the Temple Mount.

Inside of it is the soreg, 10 tefachim [appx 2'6"] high. It had thirteen peratzos (broken openings) there, that the Hellenist kings partzum (broke open). They returned and closed them off, and legislated corresponding to them 13 prostrations.

To help you picture what a soreg is, the root means woven. The Bartenura describes the soreg as a mechitzah woven out of thin wooden slats running at diagonals. The Bartenura compares it to the part of the bed used to support the mattress, with plenty of open space inside the weave.

He goes on to say that the Hellenists opened up holes in the soreg opposite each of the gates in the outer wall to let anyone see in. Note the shoresh used /p-r-tz/, the same as in the piyut. The soreg marked the limit for gentiles, they were not allowed in beyond that point. To the Hellenist mind, this havdalah bein Yisrael la’Amim, separation between the Jews and the other nations, was repugnant. It ran against their assimilationist efforts.

Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchaq, Chanukah 1:5) explains that emphasizing this division is why the mishnah has no mention of Chanukah. It is the Oral Torah which separates the Jews from non-Jews. Anyone can pick up a text and study it. But it’s the fact that the majority of the Torah is “written” on the hearts of the Jewish People, that halakhah is dynamic, not written ink-on-parchment, but a creative partnership between Hashem and the Jewish People, that makes it uniquely ours. This is why there is a prohibition against teaching Oral Torah to non-Jews, a prohibitions our sages debate is a kind of theft, or akin to marital infidelity. Therefore, there was special resistance against codifying the laws of Chanukah in particular, a desire by Rav Yehudah haNasi to keep them oral.

Chomos migdalei, the walls of my citadel, were not the mighty walls around the Temple Mount or the walls of a fortress. They were a see-through mechitzah, the realization that the Jew, as one of the Mamleches Kohanim, has a higher calling.

One possible reaction to assimilation is to build up the fortress walls. We can hope to stave off negative influences by reducing out exposure to the outside world. The idea that we need to stay distinct is not necessarily one that isn’t heard, but perhaps one that we are overly stressing.

I think this too is a message of the soreg. Yes, there is a separation between Jew and non-Jew, but it is only waist high and woven of slats with far more space than wood. The “walls of my fortress” are a reminder, not a solid barrier.

We are charged to be G-d’s “mamlekhes kohanim vegoy qadosh — a country of priests and a holy nation.” We need to balance the separation implied by the concept of qedushah with our role as kohanim, a priesthood providing religious leadership. We can not be priests if we do not stay to our special calling, but our special calling is self-indulgent if we do not use it to serve others. “Ki miTzion teitzei Sorah — because from Zion the Torah shall come forth.” By wallling ourselves in we not only protect ourselves, we prevent ourselves from teaching others.

This is an important facet of R’ SR Hirsch’s concept of “Torah im Derekh Eretz“. Yes, it does mean that we are to import derekh eretz, the ennobling elements of our surrounding culture and its sciences. But it also means that we are are to be the world’s moral voice, to contribute to the nobility of that society.

In the centuries of passion and scorn our mission was but imperfectly attainable but the ages of mildness and justice now begun beckon us to that glorious goal that every Jew and every Jewess should be in his or her own life a modest and unassuming priest or priestess of God and true humanity When such an ideal and such a mission await us can we still my Benjamin lament our fate?

- R’ SR Hirsch, “The Nineteen Letters”, 9th letter, tr. R’ Dr Bernard Drachman, pg 86

For this future which is promised us in the glorious predictions of the inspired prophets whom God raised up for our ancestors we hope and pray but actively to accelerate its coming were sin and is prohibited to us while the entire purpose of the Messianic age is that we may in prosperity exhibit to mankind a better example of Israel than did our ancestors the first time while hand in hand with us the entire race will be joined in universal brotherhood through the recognition of God the All One On account of this purely spiritual nature of the national character of Israel it is capable  of the most intimate union with states with perhaps this difference that while others seek in the state only the material benefits which it secures considering possession and enjoyment as the highest good Israel can only regard it as a means of fulfilling the mission of humanity Summon up I pray you before your mental vision the picture of such an Israel dwelling in freedom in the midst of the nations and striving to attain unto its ideal every son of Israel a respected and influential exemplar priest of righteousness and love disseminating among the nations not specific Judaism for proselytism is interdicted but pure humanity…

- Ibid. pp 162-163

Noach blessed two of his sons, “Yaft E-lokim leYefes, veyishkon beohalei Sheim — G-d gave beauty to Yefes, and dwells in the tents of Sheim.” To Rav Hirsch, this is a description of a partnership, Yefes’s mastery of derekh eretz and Sheim’s spiritual gifts.

When David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York, he called the city’s diversity a “glorious mosaic”. Not the melting pot metaphor that my grandfather encountered when they came to the U.S., the idea that convinced so many others of that generation that being a “real American” meant to assimilate. Being part of the whole and contributing to the whole by maintaining and celebrating our nation’s unique identity and perspective.

We are forced to find some kind of balance: we are supposed to both be a “unique nation in the land” and also contributors of religion, spirituality and ethics to the general society. I think this same tension informs the dispute among American halachic decisors over the appropriateness of celebrating Thanksgiving. Very indirectly, Thanksgiving is derived from Judaism. It commemorates a meal the Pilgrims ate in an intentional imitation of Sukkos in worship of the Creator that we taught the world about. The very name Jew derives from that of the dominant surviving sheivet, Yehudah, who was named by his mother “for this time odeh es Hashem — I shall thank G-d”. The entire concept of Thanksgiving would not exist without us. On the other hand, it was enacted by people who thought of the trinitarian god of Christianity, and the tradition itself comes from them, not us. Does this practice belong “behind the soreg” or within it? Are we advancing the cause of our national priesthood, or are we tearing down the walls of the citadel necessary to preserve its existence?

This too underlies the tefillah of Aleinu. The first paragraph is all about the uniqueness of the Jew. “It is up to us to praise the Master of Everything… For He did not make us like the nations of the world, and didn’t position us like the nations of the land… For they bow to vanity and emptiness… and we bow, prostrate and acknowledge before the King, King of Kings…” And then, the second paragraph switches to a universalist theme. “… That we soon see the Splendor of your Might… to repair the world into a kingdom of Shad-dai, and all children of flesh will bow to Your Name, to turn to you all the heads of the land…” And what’s the connector between these themes? “Al kein nekaveh — therefore we are expectant.” Because we are Hashem’s unique people with the unique role He entrusted to us, we await the day that all of mankind come together, and “they will recognize and know, all the dwellers of the globe, that to You all knee bows, and every tongue swears allegiance.”

Unfortunately, by building up the fortress walls, we miss many opportunities to act as a priesthood. It is a shame that it’s not the most observant Jews who are most vocal about Darfur, global hunger, or the ease of reducing the loss of life to malaria. If we accuse the world for their silence during the Holocaust, then people who feel that the events in Darfur do qualify as genocide can not stand by when it happens to someone else. How much more so if we recognize ourselves as kohanim to the world! More recently, the Union for Reform Judaism is currently raising money for the Nothing but Nets program, an initiative to distribute mosquito netting in malaria ridden parts of Africa. (Communities in which they have distributed $10 nets show a 90% decline of incidents of malaria.)

Similarly, helping out at the local soup kitchen. Earlier today I received an invitation from a synagogue to serve meals there. I was disappointed, although not surprised, to see that the synagogue was not Orthodox. Yes, we need to worry about Jewish causes; there are far more people out there to see to the general need. But I was proud of the local Young Israel, who used to staff a similar kitchen on days like the upcoming Thursday (Dec 25th), when non-Jewish volunteers tend to have family obligations.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting all this as a nice Shabbos-morning style derashah on the concept of a woven 2-1/2′ mechitzah as “the walls of my citadel”. I believe this is the actual meaning of the serug, which was sufficient as a reminder, and yet allowed Jew and non-Jew to serve the same G-d at the same Temple. “For My ‘home’ shall be called for all the people ‘a house for prayer’.”

Antiochus breached the soreg in an attempt to unify his empire as a melting pot, everyone Hellenized. This would have destroyed our goy qadosh, our nations unique voice in the world. However, the ideal soreg defines a distinction, not forces a separation. Once the tile that is the Jewish people, our role as teachers, moral guides and a conduit of sanctity, is protected and intact, then it can and must be part of Hashem’s glorious mosaic. Only by having a serug can we balance integrity and priesthood.

The word migdalai not only means “my towers” or “my citadels”, it can also be read “those things that make me great.” Only by having both separation and contact of a soreg can the walls of our miqdashei me’at, our synagogues and batei medrash, truly be chomos migdalai.

The Miracle of Oil

Ask someone why we celebrate Chanukah, and of course the first answer out would be about the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. This allowed the reconsecration of the Beis haMiqdash to be done at its halachic best, without relying on leniencies like “tum’ah huterah betziburtum’ah is permitted in public”. When everyone is tamei, no one is tamei. However, the Chashmonaim wanted to do it right, and therefore relied on the one tahor jug of oil for the eight days it took to produce more.

The earliest discussion of the laws of Chanukah is an appendix to Megillas Taanis, a list of dates from the late Bayis Sheini era which were minor holidays upon which declaring a fast was forbidden. I like the idea found in the Chida, the Eishel Avraham’s intro to Megillas Taanis and the Gra as for why there is no mishnah addressing the laws of Chanukah. (Although it is assumed and comes up in a number of places, so we know Rebbe considered Chanukah a holiday [Bikurim 1:6, RH 1:3, Ta'anis 2:10, MQ 3:9] with a specific Torah reading [Megillah 3:4,6] in which enough people lit something near their doorway that the person whose merchandise got burned by a Chanukah menorah is considered personally negligent and can’t sue for reimbersement [BQ 6:6].) They say that because it was already well documented in the appendix to Megillas Taanis, there was no need for a mishnah; and as you note — without need, there is no permissibility either. (Although why we assume this rule applies to rabbinic law rather than only interpretations of the original Oral Torah is beyond me. Also, the Gra’s son says his father speaks of “Mesechtes Chanukah” which I am only assuming is the appendix.)

But there is no mention there of the miracle of oil in Megillas Taanis. Nor in the Al haNissim we insert into Shemoneh Esrei and benching. In the Apocrypha, the reasons given relate to winning the battle for the Temple Mount, and the subsequent celebration of a quasi-Sukkos for eight days to compensate for the missed opportunity to celebrate Sukkos at the Beis haMiqdash while it was in desecration. The latter explains Beis Shammai’s position, that we light 8 lights the first night, then seven, then six, etc… to parallel the cows of the Musaf offering of Sukkos, which also decrease over time: 13 the first day, 12 the second, and so on. Clearly in their time, the connection to Sukkos was still a given.

The miracle of the oil would also be an odd reason for a holiday. How many people could have witnessed the miracle? The subset of kohanim who were tahor and working in the Heikhal that week so frequently that they can attest that no one refilled and re-lit the menorah while they were elsewhere. But a major feature of the importance Judaism ascribes miracles is their public nature. The entire word neis, miracle, is more literally a flag or military standard, something that calls attention to Hashem’s Presence. We have no (other?) holidays set up to commemorate private miracles.  I therefore think it makes sense to take the book of Maccabees and Al haNisim at face value and say the holiday was at that time about the restoration of some level of political autonomy and of Temple worship for the next two centuries.

The first mention of the miracle of the oil is in the gemara, written centuries later. The gemara goes off on a tangent in the middle of the laws of Shabbos lights to discuss those of Chanukah. At some point (Shabbos 21a) it asks, “Mai Chanukah — What is Chanukah?” and answers with the miracle of the oil. But given that we know that Chanukah was codified even before the mishnah, anchored — even if in a few mentions — in the mishnah, how could the rabbis of the talmud not know what Chanukah is about? And why is the answer one that was not given in any of the texts we have from before the gemara?

So I would assume this gemara records a conscious attempt to change the theme of the holiday. When instituted, Chanukah was about the restoration of the Beis haMiqdash and the autonomy possible under the Hasmonean kings. But then we lost it all. No autonomy, the majority of the community of the land of Israel forced to join their brothers in exile, no Temple.Notice it’s the Babylonian Talmud that is asking this question! The laws are on the books and they weren’t empowered to repeal a law enacted by a Sanhedrin in the Lishkas haGazis in the Temple. But the meaning was gone; rather than being a celebration, it became a reminder of everything lost.

And so the amora’im set out to reassign meaning to the mitzvos of the holiday by emphasizing a miracle than until then was a tangential thing — but at least related to the central mitzvah of the holiday, lighting the menorah. The Talmud isn’t asking “What is Chanukah?” in the abstract theoretical plane, it is asking pragmatically. In a time of exile, when Hashem’s influence in world events is more hidden, the most inspiring part of Chanukah is the one small way Hashem showed that the victory wasn’t merely incredible milirary prowess and good luck, but His intervention, the one explicit violation of the laws of nature — the miracle of the oil. Chanukah is very much a festival of light, reinvented as such in the darkness of exile.