July 20, 2024
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AAU Lecture Series Examines Historic, Hidden Themes of Chanukah

Ahavas Achim University, a project of Congregation Ahavas Achim of Highland Park, presented five consecutive Sunday morning Zoom lectures on all aspects of Chanukah. During these presentations, internationally acclaimed Torah scholar Rabbi Menachem Leibtag offered multiple insights on Chanukah themes and topics from his home in Israel. Rabbi Leibtag teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshivat Shaalvim, Midreshet Lindenbaum, and at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Center.

While each session was able to stand on its own, the entire series served as a progression of the study of the dates and the holiday from the time of creation to after the destruction of the Second Temple.

The first lecture asked whether Chanukah is a holiday on the solar or lunar calendar and whether there is a significance to the “holiday of lights” appearing when the daylight hours are the shortest at the darkest part of the winter. Rabbi Leibtag noted that holidays do not randomly occur throughout the year; rather, holidays occur at times when it makes sense. Light is a reminder of day and is an enabler of life. The Israelites left Egypt during a full moon that was able to light their way; Chanukah lights help light the way to provide hope that the days will soon be longer and bring light and joy to our existence. It was also no coincidence that the miracle of the Maccabees was at a very dark time of our history and the celebratory light enabled generations to rejoice.

In the second lecture, Rabbi Leibtag pointed out that there are many reasons that the 25th of Kislev was established as the first day of Chanukah. Construction of the Second Temple was started on that date, even though winter months in Israel can be rainy and not considered the best time for construction. Rabbi Leibtag explained that after years of exile, groundbreaking on a new Temple would inspire the people and give them strength and enthusiasm. Even at the darkest time of the year, there are signs that things will get better. The winter rains are determinants of the spring and summer crops and wealth that the nation of Israel will see the following year. Economic prosperity will be assured by the people continuing their inspiration of prayer, charity and repentance in the winter months that began at the holidays in the fall. Breaking ground on the Temple in the winter would keep the momentum going. We see the seeds that are planted to frame the time of Chanukah as both a nationalistic as well as a religious holiday.

Rabbi Leibtag continued in the third session with descriptions and contrasts of the books of the prophets Chagai and Zechariah. The former appears to focus on the nationalistic source of the holiday, with the latter perceiving the holiday from its spiritual side. Both sides are equally important to the nation of Israel—the country’s economy cannot be secured without nationalism, but without the spiritual side of nationalism, there won’t be the redemption and a solid economy as delivered by God. The menorah theme continues in the book of Zechariah, where a menorah is referenced as composed of two olive branches (symbolizing the spiritual and nationalistic aspects). Economic prosperity is not a one-way street without preconditions, but that prosperity only comes when the nation of Israel follows the commandments of the Torah. Economic and military strength is a byproduct of the higher goals of religious observance.

The fourth session opened with a look at Antiochus, who conquered Egypt and then Jerusalem, where he defiled the Second Temple. Antiochus specifically selected the date of 25 Kislev for the first unkosher sacrifice (as the date was important even before the actual Chanukah holiday). Forbidding the Jews from keeping any Jewish practice led to the Hasmonean revolt that took several years to regain Jerusalem and the Temple.

The battles against the Greeks ended in the month of Cheshvan, but it took two months to reconstruct the sanctuary, make new vessels and rebuild a new altar to replace the defiled one. Kislev 25 was determined to be an auspicious date for rededication as it commemorated the original groundbreaking as mentioned by Chagai and to counteract what the Greeks did to destroy the Temple three years earlier. We are not only celebrating the war of the past, but using the Chanukah celebration to remind ourselves that a return to spirituality and Torah observance is coming.

The fifth and final session covered the Torah reading for Chanukah. Rabbi Leibtag noted that everything that was done for the Mishkan has the words “as God commanded” added to it. How was it permissible that the heads of the tribes could bring offerings without being explicitly told to by God? In other instances, people who did unauthorized actions were killed. How were these instances different? In the other cases, the actions were performed to make the actors look good. Here we see that actions performed to be helpful and considerate of others are welcomed. The heads of the tribes brought wagons and oxen to the Mishkan to help in the transport of the heavy parts and equipment. The Torah reading covers the dedication of the Mishkan, the precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem. The linking of dedication and rededication has the same overall theme.

No matter how much time the audience had spent informally or formally learning the story of Chanukah, Rabbi Leibtag shared a wealth of previously unknown material that was insightful for all.

By Deborah Melman

 

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