First time in English: Hanukkah - the celebration of the Oral Law

For the first time in English, late Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira's illuminating writings on Hanukkah: 'The groups of heretics who wanted to split the Torah arose only once the special light of the Chiddushim from the Oral Torah began to shine.'

Harav Avraham Shapira zts"l, | updated: 00:08

הרב אברהם שפירא זצ"ל
הרב אברהם שפירא זצ"ל
צילום: ישיבת מרכז הרב

The Second Beit Hamikdash – The Light of the Oral Torah

In the beginning of Hilkhot Hanukkah (the laws of Hanukkah), the Rambam describes the history leading up to the events of the Hanukkah miracle, and indicates that it took place during the time of the second Beit Hamikdash. He writes:

The Greeks ruled in the time of the second Beit Hamikdash, and decreed terrible decrees upon the Jewish people: abolishing their religion, forbidding them from studying Torah or performing the mitzvos, extending a free hand to their money and to their daughters, breaking into the Heichal of the Beit Hamikdash, and rendering the pure impure. The Jewish people were greatly anguished and distressed by their decrees, until Hashem, the G-d of their forefathers, had mercy upon them and issued a great salvation. The sons of the Hashmonaim, the Kohanim Gedolim, vanquished the Greeks and saved the Jewish people. A king from among the Kohanim was crowned over the Jewish people, and the Kingdom of Israel was restored for the next 200 years, until the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash."


The holiday of Hanukkah, the first mitzvah established by the Chachamim for generations and rooted in the Oral Torah, shows the potential and strength of the Oral Torah, and of the Chachamim to establish decrees. Therefore, it cannot be written down, for its essence lies in the power of the Oral Torah, and not in the power of prophecy.
The question arises, why does the Rambam emphasize the fact that this took place during the time of the second Beit Hamikdash, if this is a compendium of Halakhot? It is not an account of history. This same question applies to the Rambam’s description of the Yom Kippur service: “In the time of the second Beit Hamikdash, heresy began to develop among the Jewish people. The Sadducees rose, and were quickly eliminated, for they did not believe in the Oral Torah.”

It is important to consider what made the Rambam point out this historical detail, and this requires a deeper understanding of the time of the second Beit Hamikdash.

The Gemara asks,

Why is Esther compared to the morning? In order to teach you that just as the morning comes at the end of the night, also [the miracle in the time of] Esther came at the end of all the miracles. But what about Hanukkah – the last of all miracles? Yet, the miracle in the time of Esther is the last of all miracles included in the books of Tanach.

The holiday of Hanukkah is not included among the miracles of the Tanach – Written Torah- for Nevu’ah – prophecy - had already ceased, and the Written Torah contains only words of Nevu’ah. However, the cessation of Nevu’ah is not a happy occurrence, and seemingly conveys the Jewish people’s spiritual decline. If so, why does the Gemara compare Esther to the morning, as though a period of dark has ended, and now the day will begin? The answer is, that after Nevu’ah ceased in that generation, a new type of leadership arose, based on the Chiddushim, new decisions of the Oral Torah, by the Chachamim ,Torah Sages, who, in essence, are the Oral Torah.

The holiday of Hanukkah, the first mitzvah established by the Chachamim for generations and rooted in the Oral Torah, shows the potential and strength of the Oral Torah, and of the Chachamim to establish decrees. Therefore, it cannot be written down, for its essence lies in the power of the Oral Torah, and not in the power of Nevu’ah.

At the end of sefer Malachi, the last of the Nevi’im, it says, “Keep in remembrance the teaching of Moshe, My servant…” Yet, why does Malachi see a need to again remind the Jewish people to keep the laws of Moshe’s Torah? We can find the answer in the sefer Talmid Haran, which explains that there are different levels of Nevu’ah:

Because Malachi was the last of the Nevi’im, it is not unexpected that his Nevu’ah came to him with difficulty, for Nevu’ah at the time was declining and coming to an end. The Nevu’os would not come in a straightforward way; they were rare, sometimes appearing and sometimes disappearing, until a certain point, where, in order to receive Nevu’ah, there was a need for total isolation… After that came a point where, in order to understand the Nevu’ah, there was a need to ask the angels to explain it, as it says in the book of Zecharia, “So I answered and spoke to the angel who talked with me, saying, ‘What are these, my lord?’”

The Drashos Haran discusses this as well, saying,

It is not puzzling that Nevu’ot became unclear and concealed. There are two reasons for this… and the second one is that Nevu’ah at the time began to decline, for the levels of Nevu’ah correspond to their clarity and comprehensibility. For example, the level of Nevu’ah of Moshe Rabbeinu, the master of all Nevi’im, was the greatest level of all – perfectly clear, “like a mirror, with no mystery.”

However, the Nevu’os close to the end of the period of Nevu’ah were completely unclear, and Zecharia’s visions of Nevu’ah were so ambiguous and confusing, that the Mephorshim have a very difficult time understanding them, with many questions left unanswered.

Nevu’ah had become dimmed, and its concepts were unknown and unclear to the Nevi’im. The imminent end of Nevu’ah for the Jewish people was a known fact – not just to the Nevi’im. When the Jewish people found out that after hundreds of years of Nevu’ah, from the time of Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu, it was coming to an end, a great sadness befell them.

Having a Navi mikirbecha, a prophet among you, is a true need of the Jewish people, for we do not receive anything unnecessarily. If there is the Urim v’Tumim, it is because we need the Urim v’Tumim, and if there is Nevu’ah, it is because the Jewish people have a need for Nevu’ah. Today, we do not feel this as something that we are lacking. Then, however, the existence of Nevu’ah was common knowledge. Everyone knew that it was about to conclude, and its lacking thereafter was sorely felt.  

Based on this, we can better understand the end of Malachi’s Nevu’ah, “Keep in remembrance the teaching of Moshe, My servant.”  These are not only words of awakening, but also of comfort. The Torah will not cease to exist, for the Torah is eternal. Nevu’ah may cease, but the Torah will not cease. The words of this passuk (verse) are meant to strengthen the Jewish people. When Nevu’ah ceases, there will be a new type of leadership, through the Oral Torah. The Midrash discusses the termination of Nevu’ah, saying: “Until now, the Nevi’im would relay their Nevu’os through Ruach Hakodesh. From now on, take heed, and listen to the words of the Chachamim.” A Chacham is preferred over a Navi.

We see that in the time of the second Beit Hamikdash, Chiddushim of the Oral Torah began to spring forth. It is therefore clear why the Rambam, in both the laws of the Yom Kippur service regarding the swearing in of the Kohen Gadol, as well as in the laws of Hanukkah, emphasizes that these took place at that time – because these laws are specifically connected to the Oral Torah. In the laws of the Yom Kippur service, the Rambam relates to the struggle that took place against heresy and against the Sadducees, groups of heretics who denied the validity of the Oral Torah.

The Rambam emphasizes that these groups arose specifically in the time of the second Beit Hamikdash, because it was then that a new type of leadership began, based on the Oral Torah. In the time of the first Beit Hamikdash, there were those who denied the validity of the Torah, but none that split the Torah into two. Only once the special light of the Chiddushim from the Oral Torah began to shine, did the groups of heretics who wanted to split the Torah arise.

This pertains to the laws of Hanukkah as well. The Greek kingdom, unlike the other kingdoms before it, fought the Jewish people by making decrees against keeping the Torah. All other kingdoms attacked the Jewish people physically, while the Greeks attacked us spiritually, as we recall in the Tefillah of Al Hanissim for Hanukkah, L’hashkicham Torasecha, u’leha’aviram me’chukei retzonecha – “In order to cause [the Jewish people] to forget Your Torah and to transgress Your laws.”

In all other exiles, the Jewish people were exiled from their Land, while this exile took place in the Land of Israel, for the Nation of Israel is not a nation without its Torah. The Rasag writes, “Our nation is not a nation without keeping its Torah.” Based on the eternity of the Jewish nation, he proves the eternity of Torah.

The Greeks wanted the Torah to become forgotten, in order to eradicate the Jewish nation. As mentioned earlier, the Rambam emphasizes that this took place in the time of the second Beit Hamikdash, for it was then that the Oral Torah began to develop and Chiddushim began to spring forth. The difference between the first Beit Hamikdash and the second is not one of mere historical significance; rather, there was an inherent distinction between them. The decree against the Jewish people took place specifically in the time of the second Beit Hamikdash, for any positive force that reveals itself in the world, will simultaneously encounter a negative force to oppose it.

Just as the cessation of Nevu’ah came together with the nullification of the yetzer hara – evil inclination - for Avodah Zara, so the revelation of Chiddushim from the Oral Torah came about simultaneously with the uprising of the heretics and the Sadducees. The adoption of the Greek culture by many Jewish people was part of this phenomenon as well, and it is in this period that the Greeks begin to fight against the Oral Torah.

Translated by Chaya ben Rachamim. Note: Footnotes have been omitted due to programming restraints.




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