'Twas the last day of Hanukkah - the meaning of Zot Hanukkah

The light that overcomes the darkness.

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Hirsch

Judaism Aryeh Hirsch
Aryeh Hirsch

“The last night of Hanukkah is called Zot (“this” is) Hanukkah. Zot means something is clear (as if you could point to it with your finger, and say: “THIS” is Hanukkah)….I kindle Hanukkah lights at night, when it’s dark and everything is wrong. There is no light. Suddenly, I light Hanukkah lights and it becomes clear to me that I have the greatest lights in the world: my Jewish soul, my Jewish family, my Jewish Nation and Land, and once (and in the future, again) my Jewish Temple"(The Soul of Hanukkah, Teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Compiled by R. Shlomo Katz, pages 45 and 109).

The making clear and light of a previous darkness is a great theme throughout the teachings of another of our Giants, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook. Light has become Rav Kook’s signature idea (Orot), and one could pick almost any of his writings and see a treatment of lights. But in one treatise he deals both with the solution of doubts and lights: in Ein Aya, his commentary on Shabbat 33b.

The story is the famous one of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the Rashbi, who proclaimed that the Romans did nothing for humanity, but acted only to further their own selfish goals. Word of his statement became public, and he had to hide in a cave, in tremendous physical want, for a total of thirteen years.

It was during those thirteen years that Rabbi Shimon , the Rashbi, wrote the Zohar, literally “ the Light”. It is the kabbalistic commentary on the Torah. In the conclusion of the story, the Rashbi says:” Since a miracle was performed to rescue me, I should fix something for the benefit of society”.

R. Shimon asked the leaders of the community: “Do you have something that needs fixing?”

They replied: “There is a place here that has a doubt (safek) regarding Tumah (ritual purity; it was uncertain whether dead bodies were buried there, and if so, exactly where they were). Due to the safek, kohanim (priests, who are prohibited regarding Tumah) have to detour around the area, and they are inconvenienced.”

Rabi Shimon asked:” Is there anyone here who knows a time when the place was considered pure (tahor, free of dead bodies)?”

An old man said:”Yes, in R. Yochanan ben Zakkai’s time it was considered tahor."

Thereupon, Rashbi located the grave, thus clearing up the safek (doubt) and allowing the kohanim to walk in the rest of the area (they now had to avoid only the grave itself, a much smaller area).

Rav Kook: The condition of doubt existed because of the darkness that had enveloped the נשמה כללית, the collective soul, of the Nation. Israel was then under the Roman boot, just after the crushing of the Bar Kochba rebellion, and only some sixty years after the destruction of the Temple. Rav Kook contrasts the Temple’s era of תורת וודאי, clear Torah as taught by the Sanhedrin in the Temple, and תורת ספק, the Torah of doubt of the exile.

Due to lack of Chachamim (Torah giants) and Temple, not only was there a general lack of Torah knowledge among the masses, leading to doubt; but it was spiritually necessary for there to be doubt. Since Divine light was not fully illuminating Jews’ souls, doubts were necessary in order to engender the necessary carefulness and actions to distance oneself as much as possible from Issur (actions and items prohibited by the Torah).

Rav Kook pinpoints two entities that are considered “Light to the world: Torah scholars and Beit Hamikdash “(Temple; Baba Batra, 4a). Both spread light in two ways: the Torah that is taught by the Talmidei Chachamim, and in the Temple: also, the Segulah, the influence both have in the Nation by their mere presence. Both irradiate holiness, in a prophetic way, that raises the soul of the Nation, beyond their roles in teaching and educating.

Rashbi had a three-pronged strategy for dealing with this situation of darkness, of safek (doubt). First, פעולה רוחנית סגולית, a spiritual action on the level of Segulah,as above. He talked to the leaders, finding out when things were on the level of וודאי, to influence their souls to glimpse and long for a return to that enlightened world of clarity that existed in the Temple era of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai.

Only then did Rashbi search for a Halachic remedy for the problem; he taught them this bit of Torah. Finally, unlike many of our contemporary Tikkun Olam (“fix the world”) enthusiasts, only after ascertaining the Halachah did he purify the area so as to lessen the kohanim’s inconvenience. R. Shimon wanted to prove that Torah and Zohar, rather than crimping people’s style or being destructive( see the full story in Tractate Shabbat 33b), are designed to help people and improve the world, eventually to  reach the Geula Shleima, full Redemption .

Rav Kook stresses that Rashbi could have simply showed them where the corpse was, without that first spiritual elevation of the Jews. But that is not the raison d’etre of the Tzaddik( the Righteous one): he is to give that push upward, so that in the future they will follow the Good via their own free will, and via their own knowledge.  He would light their candle, and then they were to add their own light. Also, since he had merited a miraculous personal salvation, he knew that as the Tzaddik of his era, he should connect his great occurrence to the general (klali) Good, he being like a limb of the body of Nation, as the Nation is to all humanity, and to all of Creation.

Tzaddik, of course, is another tie to Hanukkah in this tale. For the Hanukkah story of Jew vs. Hellenist Jew, is paralleled by the rivalry of Yosef and his brothers. Yosef is called the Tzaddik, and he too developed all that was in other people (Vayiftach Yosef et Kol acher bahem; Genesis  41;56). He was the universalistic Jew, of Tikkun Olam: he fed and developed  a world. He too worked for the klal, the general public, not being satisfied with saving only  his own skin from the Egyptian jail. He lifted the spiritual level of all Egypt, giving Egyptians not only vision (see Hannukah: Vision, this website, Nov.26, 2013) but even circumcision- and helping Jacob and Yehudah establish a Yeshivah for Torah.

He, like Rashbi, had landed in jail because of his Jewish brethren, yet both he and Rashbi worked to “unite all the levels of society, and of Israel, and of Torah “( see Emunat Iteinu, volume 10, pages 182-184, 208-216.Also Rav Matis Weinberg notes that  although R. Shimon is his name in Halacha, Rashbi is his name as master of agadta - homiletic sections of Talmud -whose name, agadta, literally means to  unite and connect: to connect Torah to everyday life, like the Ladder,Sulam,  of Jacob which connected Heaven and Earth- and Sulam is the main commentary on Rashbi’s Zohar, Light).

One final connection to Zot Chanuka: Rav Kook notes that the Tzaddik unites all the peratim, the details of Creation, including all the actions and Torah learnt by Jews in all history, in a march to the ultimate Tikkun and Geula- באין השקף אם הפעולות נראות לשעתן או לאחר זמן - with no regard if the results will be seen immediately, or long into the future. This is the Chashmonai spirit, to see clearly and ‘do what is right no matter what the consequences” (Rav Weinberg,  Frameworks, Hanukkah).

Greeks, Romans and their modern counterparts look up at the scoreboard, as only the results matter to them; they are thus meraglim, spies (Genesis 42, 9) who will do anything mechanical to tilt the final score in their favor. But those who light Hanukkah candles are saying that be they  5,000 Maccabim against 50,000 enemies, they will trust in the Lord and do what’s right, having faith that He will determine the final score.

As King David said after being saved : “The lion and the bear have I, your servant, slain”(Samuel I,17;36) and so I trust that He will save me from the Philistine Goliath. Says Rashi, in words that presage those of Rashbi: David was saying that I know that it was not for nothing, for me alone, did these things happen to me as a shepherd;   in the future, I will do similarly for the salvation of all Israel”.

Furthermore, King Solomon added: Me’Or Einayim Yisamach Lev”-Light to the eyes will gladden the heart” (Proverbs 15; 30). As the Metzudot David explains: enlightening the eyes in a Davar Ha’mesupak( an issue shrouded in doubt) will gladden the heart, for in this world there is no Simcha, no happiness, like to unraveling of doubts.

This is the happiness of the clarity of the Light of Zot Hanukkah. May we merit,  this Hanukkah, to see: the light of Torah; of how to deal with our enemies , in the Chashmonai spirit; and of the Geula Shleimah.