Sago Boulevard

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Pahad Yitshak On Hanukkah I

As I mentioned, I'm learning Rav Hutner's Pahad Yitshak on the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah. This is the first of what I hope to be a series of posts devoted to the subject.

Rav Hutner begins by noting that Hanukkah has no scriptural basis and therefore belongs in the category of those aspects of the Oral Torah not fit to be written down. In one sense, this is understandable as the events of Hanukkah have no connection to biblical events. Yet, R. Hutner illustrates a greater significance to this fact.

From a prophesy in Hosea, we see a connection between the actual writing of the Torah and the brit (convenant) between God and Israel. This brit is established on 2 Sivan (R. Hutner derives this from the Gra's explanation of the two birkot haTorah). What's significant here is that the brit precedes the giving of the Torah itself. R. Hutner suggests that the prohibition of writing the Oral Torah is part of this initial brit and thus, precedes the Torah as well. He gives the following explanation for this.

The Oral Torah, once it was committed to writing, lacks an authoritative text (i.e. "hisurei mehsera", "ein seder lamishnah"). We see from here that even when writing is ultimately permitted, the Oral Torah continues to have an oral quality. If the initial prohibition of writing the Oral Torah were a din perati, merely one law among many, we would not be justified in overriding it for the sake of a great communal need. It makes more sense to assume that the prohibition refers to the entity of the of Torah itself, rather than the laws within it.*

This distinction between the generalities of the brit and the laws themselves manifests itself in the din of mesirat nefesh, martyrdom. There is a mitsvah of mesirat nefesh for the three sins of murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality (meaning, one must give up his life rather than transgress). There is an additional mitsvah of mesirat nefesh that applies to all aspects of Torah at a time when Judaism itself is in danger. The first kind of mesirat nefesh is simply a exception to the norm of pikuah nefesh, while the second kind refers to the brit in toto.

It is this second kind of mesirat nefesh that is championed by the Hashmona'im in the story of Hanukkah. Their sacrifice is one prompted by the threat of annihilation and their triumph is a victory for the continuity of the brit itself. The fact that Hanukkah has no mention in Tanakh takes on an added significance. Rather than focusing on one specific aspect of our brit, Hanukkah is about sacrificing ourselves in defending that very brit.

*I don't fully understand R. Hutner's derivation here. I think he is playing off the idea that the Oral Torah was written down in response to a national crisis. This is typically not done for individual laws explicitly in the text. The fact that it was in fact done, indicates that it isn't such a law.