Parshat Vayeishev: What is Chanukah?

“What is Chanukah? Our Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev Chanukah is observed. This is for eight days on which it is prohibited to eulogize or fast. For when the Hellenists entered the Temple they defiled all of the oil. And when the Hashmonaim rose to power and overcame them, they only found one container of oil sealed with the seal of the Kohen Gadol. It only contained sufficient oil for one day. But a miracle was performed with this oil and they lit from it for eight nights. In a different year they established and made these days a festival with Hallel and giving thanks.” (Tractate Shabbat 21b)

The events that are associated with Chanukah are widely known. The celebration recalls the miracles that our ancestors experienced in their triumph over the Assyrians. However, precisely what miracle or miracles are we recalling? If we consider traditional sources the answer is unclear. The Talmud explains that the celebration of Chanukah recalls the miracle of the oil. The Hashmonaim defeated the Assyrians and reoccupied the Bait HaMikdash. They wished to rekindle the Menorah – the candelabra – of the Temple. They required ritually pure oil. The Assyrians had defiled the oil in the Temple. The Hashmonaim found only a small container of oil that remained fit. It held sufficient oil to fuel the Menorah for a single night. They would require eight days to procure additional oil. A miracle occurred and the small container of oil provided sufficient fuel for all eight nights.

The Talmud explains that the days on which this miracle occurred were established as a holiday. The festival is celebrated through reciting Hallel and offering thanks to Hashem. How do we offer thanks? We add the prayer of Al HaNissim to the Birkat HaMazon and the Amidah.[1]

It is clear, from the discussion in the Talmud that, the miracle of the Menorah is the central event commemorated by Chanukah. We would expect that Al HaNissim would thank the Almighty for this miracle. However, a review of Al HaNissim reveals that the miracle of the Menorah is not even mentioned. Instead, the prayer deals exclusively with the salvation of the Jewish people from their enemies. The Talmud indicates that this prayer is a fundamental aspect of the celebration of Chanukah. Why does this prayer not mention the central miracle?

Before we can answer this question we must consider and interesting problem in this week’s parasha.

“And they took him and they threw him into the pit. And the pit was empty. There was no water in it.” (Beresheit 37:24)

Parshat VaYeshev describes the relationship between Yosef and his brothers. Yosef’s bothers were jealous of him. They resented both the special treatment he received from his father Yaakov and Yosef’s dreams of ruling over them. The brothers conspired to kill Yosef and to tell Yaakov that he had been killed by a wild animal. Reuven intercedes with the brothers. He tells them that they should not kill Yosef. Instead, they should throw him into a pit. Reuven hoped that the brothers would accept his counsel. He could then return, rescue Yosef, and return him to their father.

In our pasuk the brothers accept Reuven’s advice. They throw Yosef into a pit. The Chumash describes the pit. The pasuk says that the pit was empty and that it did not contain water. Our Sages note that the pasuk seems redundant. If the pit was empty, obviously it did not contain water. They resolve this issue by explaining that the intent of the pasuk is that the pit was empty of water. However, it was not completely empty. It contained snakes and scorpions.[2]

This explanation of the passage raises a number of difficult problems. The first issue is raised by Torah Temimah and others. Reuven wished to save Yosef. It seems strange that he should suggest throwing Yosef into a pit containing poisonous snakes and scorpions. It is worth noting that the Sages comment elsewhere that the natural outcome of a person falling into a pit containing snakes and scorpions is that the person will die. Maimonides concludes that a woman is permitted to remarry based upon testimony that her husband fell into such a pit.[3] In other words, in suggesting that the pit into which Yosef was thrown contained snakes and scorpions, the Sages acknowledge that the likely outcome of this event should have been Yosef’s death. This is a strange way for Reuven to attempt to save Yosef![4]

The second issue is that it is obvious that the brothers did not expect Yosef to die quickly. The Chumash relates that after throwing Yosef into the pit, Yehuda suggested that the brothers sell Yosef to a group of passing merchants. The brothers agreed, drew Yosef from the pit and made the sale. Apparently, they fully expected him to be alive. How can this be reconciled with our Sages contention that the pit contained snakes and scorpions?

“Rav Kahana said that Rav Natan the son of Minyomi explained in the name of Rav Tanchum: A Chanukah light that is placed above twenty cubits is disqualified – as is the case in regards to a Succah and an alley.” (Tractate Shabbat 21a)

One of the major observances of the Chanukah celebration is the lighting of the Chanukah lights. The Talmud explains that the lights cannot be placed above twenty cubits from the ground. Rashi and others explain the reason for this disqualification. The objective of the Chanukah lights is to publicly give expression to the miracle of Chanukah. In order for this objective to be embodied in the lights, they must be readily visible. If the lights are places above twenty cubits they will not be easily seen by a person passing in the street.

This law directly precedes the Talmud’s discussion of our passage. In other words, immediately following the statement of this law concerning the maximum height of the Chanukah lights, the Talmud interrupts its discussion of the laws of Chanukah in order to teach us that the pit into which Yosef was thrown was empty of water but contained snakes and scorpions. After teaching this lesson, the Talmud returns to its discussion of the laws of Chanukah. Why does the Talmud make this interruption?

One factor that might be suggested is that the authorship of the law concerning the height of the Chanukah lights and the lesson concerning Yosef’s pit is the same. Both are authored by Rav Kahana in the name of Rav Natan the son of Minyomi who in learned the lesson from Rav Tanchum. However, Torah Temimah suggests a more fundamental connection. He contends that the two lessons both deal with the limitations of human vision. Just as an objects that is twenty cubits high is not readily observed, so too the brothers were unable to clearly see the bottom of the pit. Therefore, they did not realize that they had thrown Yosef into a pit containing snakes and scorpions.

This answers both of our questions. Reuven’s plan was reasonable. Because of its depth, the bottom of the pit and its snakes and scorpions were unobserved. Reuven did not realize that his suggestion placed Yosef’s life in immediate danger. Reuven reasonably assumed that Yosef would be safe in the pit until he could return and rescue him. His brothers were similarly unaware of the dangers of the pit. Therefore, they fully expected Yosef to be alive and available to be sold to the merchants.[5] So, unbeknownst to Yosef’s brothers he experienced a miraculous salvation. As the bothers drew Yosef from the pit, they were not aware of experiencing anything out of the ordinary. But Yosef knew that he had just experienced a personal miracle. This divergent understanding of the event led to an interesting confrontation between Yosef and his brothers.

“And the brothers of Yosef saw that their father had died. And they said, “Perhaps Yosef will seek vengeance against us. And he will repay us for all of the evil we caused him.” (Beresheit 50:15)

With the death of Yaakov, the brothers became concerned with Yosef’s attitude towards them. They had sold their brother into bondage. The brothers feared that Yosef had not truly forgiven them. They feared that Yosef’s kindness had been motivated by his love for their father. Without Yaakov’s presence, Yosef might finally demand repayment for the evil done to him.

Did the brothers observe any behavior of Yosef to suggest a basis for their fear? The midrash suggests that they did. One opinion in the midrash is that during the journey to bury Yaakov at Maarat HaMachpayla, Yosef stopped and peered into the pit he had been thrown into by his brothers. The brothers feared that Yosef was recalling his treatment at their hands. However, the brothers were mistaken. Yosef was peering into the pit in order to recall the miracle he had experienced and to give thanks to Hashem.[6] The brothers and Yosef had divergent understandings of Yosef’s experience in the pit. Therefore, the brothers failed to appreciate Yosef’s reason for visiting the pit.

The Sages comments regarding Yosef’s interest in the pit requires further consideration. Certainly, Yosef’s rescue from the pit was miraculous. But this event was just the first step in a series of experiences that were no less wondrous! Yosef entered Egypt as a slave and eventually became the Paroh’s prime minister. Was Yosef’s mercurial rise to eminence any less impressive than his rescue from the pit?

Actually, the Sages description of Yosef’s attraction to the pit reflects a principle of normative halacha. Shulchan Aruch explains that one who encounters a place at which he experienced a miracle is required to recite a blessing acknowledging the miracle. Shulchan Aruch explains that the authorities dispute the standards for defining an experience as miraculous in the context of reciting this blessing. Some argue that only an event that is inconsistent with nature is regarded as a miracle in this context. In other words, if someone was the sole survivor of some natural disaster, this person would not recite the blessing. In contrast, if a person was directly hit by a car and incurred no injury, the blessing would be recited.[7]

The midrash’s interpretation of Yosef’s behavior reflects this distinction. Yosef’s rise to power in Egypt was clearly engineered by Hashem. Yet, this process evolved within the patterns of nature. In contrast, Yosef’s rescue from the pit was an unnatural event. Therefore, the midrash’s assertion that Yosef chose the visit to the pit as the occasion to thank Hashem for the miracles he had experienced is consistent with the laws relating to the blessing over miracles. The blessing is stated over events that are outside of the nature. Yosef offered thanks to Hashem for a miracle that was outside of the pattern of nature.

Let us now return to our original question. What miracle does Chanukah commemorate? According to the Talmud, the central theme of the celebration is the miracle of the Menorah. However, the Al HaNissim makes no mention of this miracle and instead focuses on the victory of Bnai Yisrael over the Assyrians. In order to resolve this contradiction, we must appreciate that the fundamental objective of Chanukah is the commemoration of a miracle and thanking Hashem for this wonder. Which miracle was greater – the miracle of the Menorah or the victory of Bnai Yisrael over the Assyrians? It depends on the perspective from which the question is asked. Certainly, the victory over the Assyrians had greater impact. This triumph liberated the Jewish people and made the rededication of the Bait HaMikdash possible. Also, the success of Bnai Yisrael in battling and defeating their formidable enemy is clearly a wonder brought about by Hashem. However, in one respect the miracle of the Menorah was the greater miracle. It involved an overt violation of the natural law.

As we have discovered, our Sages maintain that only events that are clearly outside of nature are treated as miracles in regards to the blessing. It is reasonable to assume that the Sages apply the same criterion in creating a Chanukah – a celebration commemorating and thanking Hashem for a miracle. The basis for such a celebration must be a miracle that meets the standard of being outside of the patterns of nature. Without such an event the celebration is not warranted. The miracle of the Menorah meets this standard. Therefore, it serves as the basis upon which the celebration is founded. However, although the miracle of the Menorah is the basis for creating the celebration of Chanukah, the celebration is not limited to recalling than thanking Hashem for this miracle. As we noted above the victory over the Assyrians in many ways was an even more significant miracle than the miracle of the Menorah.

This explains the discrepancy between the Talmud’s contention that Chanukah recalls the miracle of the Menorah and the Al HaNissim’s emphasis of the victory over the Assyrians. Each is discussing the miracle of Chanukah from its own unique perspective. The Talmud is explaining the basis for the creation of the celebration. This is the miracle of the Menorah. The Al HaNissim is a prayer of thanks. It emphasizes the victory over the Assyrians. This miracle delivered the Jewish people from oppression and made possible the rededication of the Bait HaMikdash. Therefore, its impact is of far more significance than the miracle of the Menorah.


[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Shabbat 21b.

[2] Mesechet Shabbat 22a.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Gerushin 13:17.

[4] Rav Baruch HaLeyve Epstein, Torah Temimah on Sefer Beresheit 37:24.

[5] Rav Baruch HaLeyve Epstein, Torah Temimah on Sefer Beresheit 37:24.

[6] Midrash Rabba, Sefer Beresheit 100:8.

[7] Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 218:4,9.