Friday, December 7, 2007

Chanukah: Bridging between physical and spiritual

By Daniel Pinner

“During the Second Temple, the Greek Empire enacted harsh decrees against Israel, annulling their religion…confiscating their property and their daughters…and oppressed them terribly…until the G-d of their fathers had compassion on them and saved them from their hands…

It was on the 25 of Kislev that Israel overpowered their enemies; they entered the Inner Sanctuary [of the Holy Temple] and found only one jar of pure oil, which did not contain enough to keep [the Menorah] alight for more than one day – yet they lit the candles from it for eight days, until they crushed olives and brought forth pure oil.

And therefore, the sages of that generation ordained that these eight days, beginning with the evening of the 25 of Kislev, be days of rejoicing and praise [Hallel]. The candles are lit each evening…to publicise the miracle. And these days are called Chanukah [‘Dedication’]” (Rambam, Laws of Megillah and Chanukah 3:1-3).
This raises an obvious question: If there was sufficient oil in the jar to light the golden Menorah in the Holy Temple for one day, then why do we celebrate eight days? The miracle seems to have lasted only seven days!

A few different answers are given. The Beit Yosef (Orach Chayim 670) says that although the Levites poured all the oil into the Menorah on that first day, only one eighth of the amount was burned, and similarly on all subsequent days. Alternatively, though all the oil was burnt on that first day, the following night the Levites discovered that the jar was miraculously still full, and so it was on all subsequent days. Hence the miracle of the oil occurred on each of the eight days

The Pri Chadash has a totally different approach. He says that the miracle of the oil indeed lasted only seven days; the celebration of the first day is not to commemorate the miracle of the oil, but rather to commemorate the miraculous military victory: the Hasmonean revolt began with twenty-five men, who took on the Greek Empire – a super-power so mighty that even Rome would not dare challenge its supremacy for almost another century. Their victory, which was epitomised by retaking the Holy Temple on the 25 of Kislev, was clearly miraculous.

In any event, the result is that we celebrate Chanukah for eight days. And the number eight has tremendous significance.

The numbers from one to six represent physicality, with six representing physical perfection: G-d created the physical universe in six days, so by the end of the sixth day, the physical creation had been completed.

The number seven represents spirituality – but specifically, spirituality in this world. The seventh day is Shabbat – the day that G-d created perfection, so to speak. For this reason, Judaism is replete with rituals and ideas that centre around the number seven – seven days of Sukkot and of Pesach, seven blessings on each of seven days following a wedding, seven blessings before and after the Shema each day (three in the morning, four in the evening), seven years in the Shmittah cycle…the list could fill an entire book.

The number eight has two different aspects. On the one hand, it represents the next stage above spirituality in this world, which is the next world – pure spirituality, above and unconnected with the physical universe. But the eighth day of Creation was in fact the first day of the week – that is, a return to the mundane, physical world. Eight, therefore, contains within itself a duality: both absolute spirituality and imperfect physicality.

This duality is reflected in the very word for eight, shmoneh (spelt shin, mem, nun, heh). The Torah contains two parts: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The Written Torah – the Sefer Torah – can be measured in purely physical terms: it contains so many kilogrammes of parchment and so many grammes of ink, it is so many metres long, and so many high. The Oral Torah, by contrast, is purely spiritual: it has no physical boundaries whatsoever. And the Oral Torah, the Mishnah, is spelt mem, shin, nun, heh – the letters of shmoneh.

In the same way, a human’s physical body can be measured as weighing so many kilogrammes, it is composed of certain chemicals, it has a specific height, and so forth. But it would be absurd (and sacrilegious) to suggest that since a typical human body contains 1.2 kg of calcium, 800g of phosphorous, 320g of potassium, 80g of iron and so on, a human body can therefore be valued in shekels (or dollars). What makes a person holy is the soul – the neshama, spelt nun, shin, mem, heh – again, the letters of shmoneh. The neshama is what bridges between the physical and the spiritual.

The Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Levy, Prague 1513-1609) gives us a stupendous insight into the significance of the number eight: “Shimon the Temani says that it was in the merit of circumcision that the Red Sea was split [paraphrasing Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Be-shallah 4 and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohay 14]. To clarify: the circumcision that G-d gave Israel elevates them above nature, which is why circumcision is on the eighth day. The seven days of Creation are the seven days of nature, because in seven days the natural world was created. The eighth, however, is above nature. It is natural to be uncircumcised, for after all, the person is born uncircumcised; and circumcision is above nature, and therefore it was because of circumcision that the Red Sea was split – an event which also was above nature” (G’vurot Hashem 40).

In the first two chapters of Tiferet Yisra’el, the Maharal explains that the natural state of being uncircumcised is deficient. Circumcision corrects this deficiency by perfecting nature, which is why it is done on the eighth day, eight being above nature.

Chanukah expresses perfectly the duality between spirituality and physicality. The Maccabees fought a physical war, using prosaic weapons; their victory entailed capturing a physical building – the Holy Temple. Yet the purpose of the Holy Temple – which is itself a physical structure, built out of wood and stone according to precise physical measurements – is pure spirituality. Significantly, in this context, the Maccabees’ war against the Syrian-Greeks lasted twenty-five years, and they captured and re-dedicated the Holy Temple after just one year of fighting. Though the war would continue for another twenty-four years, the significant date – the date that defines the victory – was the date of the cleansing of the Holy Temple.

Fire is another bridge between the physical and the spiritual. A flame has no weight, no specific shape or colour, and cannot be measured. And yet it definitely exists in the physical world: we can detect it with our physical senses. And, remarkably, a flame can conduct electricity. Clearly, something exists there in the physical sense. And the flame of the Chanukah lamp is fed by the oil – ha-shemen, spelt heh, shin, mem, nun – again, the letters of shmoneh.

Chanukah is a time when we elevate the physical world to the heights of spirituality. Just as the Maccabees re-dedicated and sanctified the Holy Temple, this is the time for us all to sanctify the mundane. One of the underlying messages of Chanukah is that the purely physical world is suffused with spirituality and holiness. The eight-day celebration teaches us that physical objects – oil, stones, wood, created by G-d – have innate spirituality. It is in our power – more, it is our obligation – to sanctify this physical world in which we live, to elevate the physical Creation above nature.


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