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Chanukah and the Maharal of Prague
Chanukah and the Maharal of Prague

Volume 4 , Issue 2

The writings of the great 16th century authority and kabbalist, the Maharal of Prague, contain what I consider to be a brilliant exposition on Chanukah. With it, perhaps, we can glean a deeper insight into the hidden symbolism and significance of that holiday.

What is the nature of Chanukah? When the Greeks entered the Bet ha‑Mikdash, they defiled all the oils in the Heichal (the outer chamber). And when the Hasmoneans were victorious, they examined the oil, and found only one container that was sealed with the imprint of the High Priest, with enough oil to last only one day. A miracle occurred and they were able to light the Menorah with it for eight days.

Shabbat 21b

Now one can ask: Just because of a miracle that enabled them to observe the mitzvah of lighting the Temple Menorah, why go to the length of establishing a whole new festival? If Jewish law requires one to establish a day of thanksgiving, it is surely because one's life was saved on that day ‑ not merely because one was able to observe a particular mitzvah. Further proof is that the Al ha‑Nissim prayer does not even refer to the miracle of oil at all. So why does the Gemara give such centrality to the miracle of the oil? The answer is that the real purpose of the festival is to celebrate the military victory over the Greeks. But the military victory seen by itself was not self‑evident as having been miraculous ‑ it was easily taken as a mere military victory in conventional terms. But the oil that lasted for eight days was an undeniable miracle; hence, it was used as the symbol of the entire victory, to demonstrate that not only it, but the military events, too, were entirely miraculous.

And it was specifically this kind of miracle that served this purpose. For the essential wickedness of the Greeks was to defile the Heichal, the outer chamber of the Temple, as the Gemara teaches here. Thus God gave the power to the Hasmoneans to defeat the Greeks, for they were Kohanim whose task it was to serve God precisely in the Heichal.

Know further that the Greeks specifically defiled the Heichal, for it was they, more than any other nation, who were empowered to defile the Heichal. This is to be seen in the fact that in Gematriyah, the word Heichal adds up to 65, whereas the word Yavan (Greece) adds up to 66. This signifies that Greece can overtake and surpass the Heichal, and thereby defile it and the oils that were found in it. And this is especially so with oil, for it is with oil that light is generated, as indicated by the fact that it was with oil that all the contents of the Heichal were sanctified originally. Oil is thus of the very essence of sanctity. And it was for this reason that the oils in particular were defiled by the Greeks.

But one container remained, with the seal of the High Priest. For the High Priest alone was superior to the Greeks. He, after all, was the one who went beyond the Heichal, or the outer chamber, and entered the Kodesh ha‑Kodashim, the Holy of Holies, whose sanctity surpassed that of the Heichal where the Greeks ruled. For this reason, the Greeks had been unable to defile that one canister of oil that had been sealed and hidden by the High Priest (in the Holy of Holies.)

Furthermore, there is a reason why it burnt for eight days. For the Holy of Holies, the source of that oil, symbolizes what comes after the number seven. The realm of natural processes is symbolized by seven, insofar as it refers to the seven days of creation in which all natural processes were established. Thus that which transcends nature is symbolized by the number eight. This secret was alluded to by the Sages in the Midrash to the verse ?with this (be'zot) shall Aaron the High Priest come into the Holy of Holies? (Lev. 16:3). For they said that the word Zot refers to the Brit of Abraham in Genesis 17:10 which says ?Zot? ? this is my covenant which they shall observe ?? This is because, in truth, man, because of his physical nature, is not really fit to enter into the inner sanctum that is so holy and separate from material existence, unless and until such a man has a bris, which also serves to transcend physical existence. Hence, the Holy of Holy itself contains the Ark and Torah which are the epitome of that which transcends physical existence, being pure disembodied intellect. For this reason was the Torah given after the number seven, i.e., after seven weeks, and 49 days ? for the Torah is symbolized by the number eight. On the other hand, the Heichal itself contained the Menorah ‑ with its seven branches, signifying the power of nature ‑ but in the Holy of Holies nature was transcended, thus in that inner sanctum was only the Torah, which is light itself.

In this short passage, the Maharal manages to open our eyes to the beauty of the story of Chanukah, and its powerful message for our time. As it emerges from these words, Chanukah can be seen as the triumph of spirit over matter, of light over darkness, but most especially, of the special qualities of the Torah over the forces of darkness that threaten to overwhelm mankind in each generation.

What Chanukah teaches is that the Torah is a unique combination of matter and spirit, of body and soul. Its light suffuses the world, and brings a special sanctity into the affairs of man. The Jew, bearer of a special covenant ‑ on his flesh and in his heart ‑ has always personified the values and practices of that Torah, and it has been that covenant that has enabled him to survive and flourish in spite of the seemingly endless succession of cultures, countries, empires, and civilizations that have attempted to deny his destiny, extinguish his light, undermine his historic role in the affairs of mankind. Thus understood, Chanukah suggests that Greece is but a symbol of all such attempts, penetrating as they do to the very Heichal of Jewish life, posing their threat to the very existence of the Jew, body and soul. But hidden deep within us, within our people's power, there lies an indomitable power, that is the spirit of our holy Torah with its commandments, that together are embodied in the Brit Milah, a power that defies description, confounds explanation, and withstands every challenge ‑ physical, cultural, and intellectual.

Thus, on Chanukah, we celebrate our status as an eternal people, chosen by God to bear our unique burden in this troubled world, choosing our path in the shadow of the divine, guided by the spirit and the way of the Torah, our greatest glory as a people.

This Chanukah, therefore, as we witness the continuing historic events by which entire nations in Eastern Europe throw off the Godless tyrannies that have enslaved them, and that for nearly a century stood opposed to the life of the spirit, and, in particular, the spiritual life of the Jew, we have reason to ponder the abiding significance of the Maharal's words.

Rabbi Basil Herring, Ph.D is the spiritual leader of the Atlantic Beach Jewish Center.













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