By Rabbi Moshe Weinberger
Hannukah is the only Jewish holiday which is entirely “oral” in its origin, development and preservation. In Resisei Laycah (56), R. Tzadok distinguishes between “written” and “oral” miracles. The spoken word and the written word are the two mediums by means of which God has revealed His will and intent to man. According to the Talmud (Pesachim 50b) our inability to pronounce the Ineffable Name is a by-product of mortality. The world in its present state conceals the great truth of “There is nothing besides Him.” When David HaMelech wrote “You’re faith in the nights” (Tehillim 92) he reminded us that only through faith can man perceive the light of God glimmering beneath the nighttime veil of nature and history. God’s name is allowed to be written but not pronounced. The written word composed of parchment, ink and letters, lacks the vitality and spirit of the spoken word. It is confined, imprisoned by the strict limitations of language. Contained in physical encasements, the word becomes paralyzed once it has been completed. The spoken word lives and breathes and can therefore revive the heart of the listener by infusing him with the breath of life. God’s word can only be written because we are not prepared to hear it. The written word conveys God’s will but conceals it beneath the darkness of physical shape and form. The man of faith is capable of detecting Godliness despite the confinement and distance. Were God to speak to us, were He to tell us those very same words etched on parchment we would cease to exist. This, of course, is what happened on Sinai and Moshe Rabbenu, the master of the written Torah, stood between God and Israel. The written word, because of its limitations, affords man the opportunity to comprehend God’s will by obscuring God’s voice. The parchment and ink are “physical garments” which introduce man to God but ultimately create the split between them.
The Oral Law is God’s heart transmitted to us by His word through the hearts of the Sages. One of the great principles of communication is “devarim hayotzim min halev nichnasim lalev”—words which came from the heart penetrate the heart. Here a true relationship can be established with the Creator. God’s “heart” cannot be contained on parchment. His “mysteries” are whispered “mouth to mouth.” Only with the cessation of prophecy—Written Torah—could the way of the Oral Law commence. Prophecy ended with the rise of the Greek Empire. In the absence of prophecy, the hearts of the Sages began to reverberate with the quiet, still voice of God.
The final “Written Torah Miracle” which took place was the story of Purim as recorded in the Megillah. These were the final moments of prophecy. Haman sought to physically annihilate the people of Israel. Ink and parchment, words and scrolls are the physical garment of Israel’s soul. Haman saw letters wherever he turned and frantically, desperately sought to erase them by obliterating the “written” existence of Israel. Thus began His program of genocide.
With the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of it the Written Torah, a new form of hatred emerged. As the sages expounded the Oral tradition in the yeshivos of Bavel and Israel, spiritual ‘oral’ anti-Semitism began. The Greeks sought to undermine the faith of Israel, to violate the Jewish heart which contains the mysteries, the secrets of God’s Heart. The letters-bodies could be tolerated by the Greeks and those who would follow them. The Greeks fathered Western Civilization’s appreciation for the Written Torah as a masterpiece of literature and a moving portrayal of man’s faith. They also introduced a violent hatred of the soul of Israel the Oral Law God’s secret whispered into the ears of his children. The Greeks fired the first bullet in the war against Judaism.
Hannukah was the first “oral miracle.” It is celebrated with songs and praise as opposed to the physical festivities of Purim. The lights of Hannukah are the lights of Torah which illuminate our lives, which fill our hearts and soar above the parchment and words.
In Pachad Yitzchok (Hannukah 3) R. Hutner describes the irony of Greece’s failure. Chazal identify Greece as the Kingdom of Darkness. In Hebrew, choshech, darkness contains the same letters as shachoach, forgetfulness. The objective of Hellenization was to erase Jewish memory, to cause the Torah to be forgotten. In the absence of prophecy, in the sudden darkness of forgetfulness, the sages groped for the voice of God, for Hannukah lights. The Oral Law erupted from the stifled hearts of the people of parchment, ink and letters. Halachic man was born. The darkness of Greece forced the trees to bear its precious fruit and the Prophet became a Sage.
One year, the great hassidic master, R. Dovid of Taine waited for what seemed like hours to light the Hannukah candles. He seemed bewildered holding the lit shammash as hundreds of hassidim stood watching and waiting. Finally the Rebbe called the name of a certain hassid and asked that he step forward. The fellow who fearfully approached the Rebbe was unusually tall and thin and an honest, God fearing Jew. The Rebbe said, “Brother, I have an unusual question to ask you, and everything depends on your answer.” Everyone was at a loss as to what the Rebbe could stand to gain from the simpleton before him. “Do you ever tell your wife a secret, something that you would never say to anyone else?” Dumbfounded the hassid meekly replied, “Yes sometimes.” “What do you do when you tell her a secret?” People began to giggle since everyone in town knew that the man’s wife was a petite woman. “I bend down to tell her.” “Is that all?” Aren’t you forgetting something?” “My wife stands on her tiptoes.” Upon hearing this the Rebbe joyfully lit the candles with ecstatic fervor unusual even for him. Later that evening the hassidim approached a member of the Rebbe’s family the great R. Mordechai Dov of Hornsteipl asked him to explain the Rebbe’s strange behavior during candle lighting. The tzaddik said, “Every Jew, even a rebbe can’t help but wonder—“How important could every action of mine be in God’s eyes? Why would God be so concerned with my little mitzvah, my candle?” The Rebbe wanted to demonstrate that when you love someone and have a secret to share no matter how tall you are you’ll bend down and whisper the words into the beloved’s ear.” Generally the shechinah does not descend beneath ten tefachim from the ground but regarding Hannukah the law states that the menorah should be placed beneath ten tefachim. God loves each Jew and bends down from infinity to share His secrets with him. All He asks is that we stand on our tiptoes.
This is the essence of Hannukah; the Yom Tov of man yearning for God, of candles ignited’ by the spark of human creativity. It celebrates an encounter in the night of exile, a secret shared in the darkness. The lights of Hannukah burn steadily until and beyond “that day, which will be neither day nor night,” until the time when “the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold.” (Isaiah 30:20) All He asks is that we stand on our tiptoes.
Rabbi Moshe Weinberger is the morah d’asrah of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York. Rabbi Weinberger is a popular author and speaker, and has been involved in Jewish education and outreach for nearly thirty years. When this article appeared in the Jewish Action Winter 1990-91 issue, Rabbi Weinberger was serving as a rebbe at the Ezra Academy, Queens, New York.