Shalshelet: The Return of the Threes

The Hashmonians knew that victory was assured, no matter what the numbers. 5,000 Jewish soldiers could face ten times as many Greeks, it made no difference.

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Hirsch

Judaism Aryeh Hirsch
Aryeh Hirsch

וימאן- The Torah reader’s voice goes up, then down;  his voice rises again, and then falls; and  finally the reader raises his voice yet a  third time, and lets it fall. Thus he reads the story of Yosef (Joseph) refusing the blandishments of the wife of Potiphar (Genesis 39; 8).

The reader does this because the musical note on וימאן (“and he refused”) is a שלשלתshalshelet. The root of the word “shalshelet” is shalosh, meaning “three”, and it denotes a chain of three musical notes. The Torah seems to be hinting at a threefold refusal by Yosef; indeed, the Talmud says that that is exactly what occurred:

"And as the wife of Potiphar spoke to Yosef day after day, he did not listen to her, to lie or be with her (Genesis 39:10). Every day she tried to persuade him with tough words: 'Lie with me, or I will put you in jail.' He answered: 'The Lord frees the imprisoned [words from the morning prayers]. She threatened: 'I will shorten your height.' Yosef replied: 'God raises those bent over, to stand erect [again from the morning prayers]. Finally came her third threat: 'I will blind your eyes.' He said: 'The Lord gives sight to the blind [also from the morning prayers].' She gave him a thousand talents of silver to obey her, and still he did not want to listen" (Yoma 35b).

Thus we find that the shalshelet hints at a whole conversation known only to our oral tradition, as described in the Talmud. Furthermore, this three-fold  conversation is paralleled in another section of the Talmud: the one dealing with Hanukah candles:

“The mitzvah (commandment) of Hanukah is to light one candle every night, per household. Those who beautify their performance of the mitzvot (the mehadrin) light one candle every night for each member of the household. Regarding those who ‘go to the maximum’ in their beautification of the mitzvot (mehadrin min hamehadrin),there is a dispute. The Shamai school says that on the first night one lights eight candles, and from then on he decreases by one candle each night. The Hillel scholl says that on the first night a person lights one candle, and from then on he adds one more candle each night”(Shabbat 21b).

Thus we see another three: there are three levels of doing the mitzvah of lighting Hanukah candles: standard, mehadrin and mehadrin min hamehadrin. Although I cannot say for sure what motivated the Rabbis to decree this triple level of performance, the two Gemaras above (Yoma and Shabbat) lead me to the following conclusion:

Let’s take that first threat that Potiphar’s wife made to Yosef: jail. In Hebrew, jail is beit ha'asurim; literally, the house of  prisoners. The wife of Potiphar was making a decree against the house of Yosef. Years later, in the time of the Hanukah story, the Syrian-Greeks make a parallel decree against the Jewish "house": against the Sabbath, which is the institution par excellence for the Jewish household and family. When the Hashmonaim won, the Temple was cleansed and the rabbis instituted the holiday of Hanukah; our Sages, Chazal,  then decreed, measure for measure, that just as the Greeks had legislated against the Jewish house, so in victory, the Jews will kindle a light as a celebration of the renewed Jewish house - a candle for each house.

Potiphera's second threat was to "bend Yosef’s stature". This requires explanation. When Avraham Avinu was approached by the Almighty with the command to do brit mila, circumcision, "Abram fell on his face." (Breishit 17:3). Rashi says that until he was circumcised, Avraham did not have the inner strength to stand up when confronted by the Shechina, the Presence of the Almighty. Only after his brit mila did Avraham reach the spiritual level that allowed him to “stand upright and complete” before G-d (Genesis 17; 2) . So, on a certain level, one could say that Potiphera was threatening Yoseif's brit milah (which she certainly was, as milah also symbolizes sexual purity).

Now milah is one mitzvah that is stamped on each and every Jew (including women: chazal explain that the mother of the baby circumcised also has a portion in the mitzvah; also, in Vayikra 12:2, the section commanding milah on the eighth day, begins: "When a woman conceives" and deals mainly with woman's issues). Parallel to Mrs. Potiphar’s threat, the Greeks prohibited the Jews of the Second Temple era to do brit milah. Finally,when the Maccabees won, the rabbis instituted that we kindle a light for our dedication to brit milah, a personal "candle for each and every one."

Thirdly, the wife of Potiphar threatened to blind Yoseif's eyes to literally put out his light. Potiphera was threatening a very specific Yoseif-ish, and Jewish, eye and light. Yosef is described as being "above the eye" (Genesis 49:2); Rashi says that this means that Yoseif's charm, chein, impressed the eye that saw him. Moreover, the very name Yosef means "increase", alluding to sustaining, life- bearing and multiplying. Certainly, Yoseif sustained Egypt and, Kabbalistically, Yoseif is yesod, which connotes life-bearing power and increase. Chazal compare this increase to the light of the moon, which increases over the first half of every lunar month.

Of all the decrees the Greeks made, the one against Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the first day of the lunar Jewish month, seems a bit out of place. I could understand evil decrees against kashrut, Sabbath and festivals, and brit milah - those are all distinguishing pillars of Jewish life and religion. But Rosh Chodesh  doesn't seem to belong in the same league.

There is a very basic argument here between us and the Greeks.   

Anyone reading Greek philosophy knows that what made Greek tragedies so tragic was that once the hero fell, there was no return. The Jewish idea of renewal "like the new moon" (from the Kiddush Levanah prayer) stood in stark contrast to the Greek conception of being bound iron-clad to the consequences of your past, with no second chances. In the Sophocles plays, mighty King Agamemnon is blinded and is finished, ending up a lowly, tragic figure.  A Hellenist who angered the gods was zapped by Zeus, and was finished.

The idea of kapparat pesha (Rosh Chodesh Mussaf prayer), of short-circuiting the laws of cause-and-effect (sin and punishment) returning (teshuva) to one's previous state was unheard of in Greek thinking. In the first place, it provided a great excuse for never bettering oneself; why bother, if failure was inevitable. In fact, that is another argument that Potiphera indeed used against Yosef:

Chazal say (Sotah 36b) that Yosef "came home to do his business" (Breishit 39:11), meaning that he was up to monkey-business, intending to sin with Potiphera. She "grabbed him by begadav", by his clothes. Our Rabbis, though, explain it using a similar root with a different meaning, that she "grabbed him b'bogdav", by his treacherous ones. This could allude either to "his future sinning offspring" (which she and Yosef would beget), or to "his treacheries," his treacherous action of returning to the house. Thus Potiphera was arguing like the Greeks: 'You, Yosef, are caught in the web of sin, there is no turning back now.'

Chazal describe the tremendous inner battle that Yosef fought to get out of the clutches of Potiphera and  her argument. Yosef renewed himself and won.

Similarly, when Chazal saw the victory over the Greeks, they had us light a candle to commemorate our particular Jewish light of continual renewal and increase, by lighting ne more candle every night.

That finishes the three threats in Yoma. But Potiphera did one more thing: she offered money. This, too, is connected to the Hanukah story, for it corresponds to Hanukah gelt, the money and gifts we give. This connection of money to the Hanukah and Yosef stories runs deep. I recommend reading Rabbi Matis Weinberg's Frameworks, of which the following is a mere outline:

Money represents potential. You can use money to buy anything - toys, cars, businesses, even politicians. Similarly, Yosef had chein, and found chein (favor) in the eyes of Potiphar and all of Egypt,. This was because "v'hu na'ar" (Genesis 37:2), he was a youth. Kids are loveable; and kids are all "potential".

Like money, kids think they can be anything ("When I grow up, I'll be a fireman, and a policeman, and a..."). This is what Yoseif gave to Egypt: potential, vision and confidence; and this was exactly what the brothers hated him for.

The brothers represented "mah betza" (Genesis 37:26)- as in, "Tachlis, man," the bottom line. To them, visions of Yisrael, each man under his vine, were for the far future.  Their view was: “Forget G-d's history -plan of 400 years in exile and then the Promised Land;  we have a sheep business to run here”. They saw no way that a Kennedy-like figure, straight out of Camelot, was going to run a nation with vision, charisma and character, and emerge victorious over businessmen, oil companies, armies and world powers.

G-d, however, thought otherwise: “Throw the man of dreams into the pit, time after time, and I will raise him to the heights of the world's mightiest empire, whose welfare will depend on him alone, not on you mah betza types”.

That is the Maccabean spirit of never giving up. The Hashmonians knew that victory was assured, no matter what the numbers. 5,000 Jewish soldiers could face ten times as many Greeks, it made no difference: "It is easy for the many to be handed over to the few, for there is no difference in God's eyes between saving through a large force or through a tiny one." (Yehuda Maccabee; so much for demography, that panic-spreading agent of modern ma betza-ists.) This Hashmonian spirit stems from Yosef's victory, that of the man of chein (as in Hanukah), of potential, over the mah betza types.

In fact, Rabbi Shlomo Zevin (Hamoadim BaHalachah, ArtScroll English volume II, p.57) says that the foregoing underlies the dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel in Shabbat 21b regarding the particular Jewish light. Shammai generally stresses the heavenly ideal, and here, he follows the potential of the miracle: on day one, the Kohen Gadol's oil had the potential to burn for eight days; on day two, the oil had the potential of burning only seven more days.

But Hillel stress the actual: on day one, Hillel lit one light, for the miracle was visible for this one night; on day two, the oil had now burned a second night, etc. As usual, the Halakha is according to the school of Hillel, but Shammai's opinion is also "the word of the living God," and generally represents a higher level of holiness that the rabbis did not demand of the whole nation.

Rav Kook adds: We are not allowed to have הנאה, benefit, from the Hanukah candles, because in some sense they do represent the triumph of chein and potential. Just as one can get numerous benefits from an actual tree (wood, shade, etc.), but not from the seed from which it grew, so too we do not benefit from Hanukah candles, which represent potential . For “potential”, כח, in  the spiritual realm, is the greater and more holy, as היא הנשמה שאינה מוגבלת במסגרי הזמן או המקום - it is the soul which has no limitations is time and space; but , בפועל הוא הגוף הנדרש ליניקת חיים מנשמתו—Actuality is the corporeal which constantly needs to derive nourishing Life from its soul.

In the realm of the Holy, Potential/soul trumps Actual/corporeal, and so we derive no benefit from the holy Hanukah candles (Rav Kook on the Friday prayer, אנא בכח , Emunat Iteinu vol. 11,page 84).  

It is the word “chein”, חן , which the Torah repeats so often in reference to Yosef, which is the root of the word Hanukah, חנוכה. And it is this argument about potential and chein that we commemorate with Chanuka candles, gelt (money) and gifts.