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Thoughts on the Torah Readings for Chanukah

In the book of Isaiah the prophet proclaims, “Hoy kol tzamei l’chu la’mayim,” “All who are thirsty let them come for water.”  This might seem obvious until we realize that the prophet is not speaking about water in a literal sense, but is referring to those who thirst for Torah which he compares to water and offers for free.  The sages, picking up on the connection of Torah to water, tell us that just as one cannot live for more than three days without water, so we cannot live more than three days without Torah.  They instituted Torah readings at morning services on Mondays and Thursdays, the traditional market days when farmers came to town, in addition to reading the Torah on Shabbat. Thus ideally one need not go more than three days without hearing the reading of the Torah in public.  Of course, this assumes that one is in a place which can support a regular daily minyan.  Not so easy these days.  On Monday and Thursday (and also on Saturday at minchah), we call three people to the Torah, reading the opening verses of the following week’s parashah.  On Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, and on Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot, we call four people to the Torah.  On major holidays, those mentioned in the Torah, the pilgrimage festivals and Rosh Hashanah, five are called; six on Yom Kippur; and seven on Shabbat, though additional aliyot may be added on Shabbat.  On the minor festivals ordained by the rabbis, Chanukah and Purim, however, we call only three.


For Purim, the reading chosen is from Exodus 17, since the rabbis have linked the villain in the Megillah, Haman the Agagite, to Agag the Amalekite king in the days of King Saul.  On Purim morning then we read of the unprovoked attack of the Amalekites upon the Israelites at the time of the Exodus.  Usually the number of verses required for a Torah reading are 10, but for this passage which has only 9 verses, the rabbis made an exception and we read three verses for each person called up.


What then should we read for the eight days of Chanukah?  The rabbis chose the passage in the book of Numbers which speaks of the dedication ceremony for the sacrificial altar that stood before the desert tabernacle.  According to the story in the Book of Maccabees, among the acts of desecration of the Temple performed by the Syrians under the authority of King Antiochus IV, who called himself Epiphanes, God manifest, was the offering of sacrifices of unclean, i.e. unkosher, animals to the Greek gods on the Temple altar.  Most pointedly, they would offer pigs on the altar to their gods.  When the Maccabees retook the Temple mount and cleansed the Temple they removed the old altar and replaced it with a new one. Hence Chanukah, which means “dedication” was a celebration of the dedication of the new altar.  According to the first book of Maccabees, the victors celebrated the dedication of the altar, Chanukat Hamizbeach, for eight days.  So it seems appropriate then, for us to read on Chanukah the passage about the dedication of the first altar in the days of Moses.


That dedication ceremony in Moses’s day lasted 12 days as each of the tribal chieftains for the twelve tribes of Israel came bearing their special offerings for each day of this celebration.  The tabernacle had been erected once all its components had been fashioned under the supervision of Betzalel. Moses had then anointed it with oil, after which he was told by God that the tribal chieftains should bring their offerings one for each day of the celebration.  After this introductory passage, the Torah goes on to enumerate the offerings brought by each of the chieftains, one after another.  Each one brought the identical offering to the tabernacle. We read the following: “One silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin weighing 70 shekels according to the sanctuary weight, both filled with fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one golden spoon weighing 10 shekels full with incense; one young bull, one ram, and one yearling sheep for a burnt offering; one goat for a purification offering; and for the peace offering, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five yearling sheep.”


The Torah takes the time to repeat these items twelve times as it recounts the offerings from each of the chieftains in turn, in six verses apiece.  At the end, the Torah totals up the various offerings, the utensils and the animals that were brought during these twelve days.  Immediately following this passage which concludes the parashah of Naso, we find in the opening lines of the next parashah, Beha’alotcha, appropriately enough, instructions to Aaron on the lighting of the menorah, the seven branched candelabrum in the tabernacle.


There is an amazing discussion of these offerings in the Midrash Rabbah on Numbers.  While we might wonder why the Torah took the trouble to repeat the exact same offerings twelve times in this passage, the rabbis explain that while the items enumerated all are the same, they held very different and distinct meanings for each of the twelve tribes.  The Midrash takes each item in turn and gives its unique understanding of what that item must have meant for each of the different chieftains of these twelve tribes.  For example, for the tribe of Judah, from which the Davidic monarchy sprang, each item has some significance in relation to the kingship of David and his descendants.  For the tribe of Issachar, whom the rabbis associate with the study of Torah, all of the same items have a connection with Torah.  The third offering was brought by the chieftain of Zebulon and is related to the tradition that he was in partnership with his brother Issachar and supported his study of Torah.  The fourth is the tribe of Reuven and his offerings recall his efforts to try to save his brother Joseph.  Thus each tribe has its interpretation of the same offerings.  On and on, for page after page, the Midrash enumerates these offerings and explains why they meant something different for each tribe, relating to its later history, based on a tradition they mention that these leaders could foresee what time would bring to their descendants.


How is this reading then done for Chanukah?  Basically for the first seven days, we read the offerings of the first seven chieftains.  Since there are six verses for each one, we divide the offerings of each chieftain into two parts with three verses each, the minimum required for each aliyah.  On the first day, however, we read the whole introductory passage and then the opening lines of the offering of Nachshon ben Amminadab of the tribe of Judah.  On the other days, the kohen gets the first three lines of each passage.  The levi is called for the next three lines.  As for the Yisrael, the third aliyah, there are two traditions.  In Israel, the six verses for the day are read again for the Yisrael aliyah, while in the Diaspora, we go on to read the six verses for the next day.  On the eighth day, we again divide the offering of Gamliel ben Pedahtzur of Menashe into two parts, and then for the third aliyah, we read the rest of the portion of Naso, the offerings of the ninth through the twelfth days, and conclude with the opening lines of Beha’alotcha, which speak about the lighting of the menorah in the tabernacle.


On Shabbat, we read the designated weekly portion and take out a second scroll to read the appropriate verses from the portion of Naso for that day of Chanukah.  We read the whole selection for that day for the person called for maftir, the concluding aliyah.


Chanukah always falls on the last days of Kislev and continues into the opening days of Tevet on the Jewish calendar.  Kislev generally has 30 days, though on occasion it has only 29, in order to make sure that Rosh Hashanah never falls on certain days of the week.  This adjustable feature of the Jewish calendar means that some years there are two days of Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, during Chanukah, as is the practice whenever there are thirty days in a month. The last day of the outgoing month and the first day of the new month are observed as Rosh Chodesh.  When the outgoing month has only 29 days, then we observe only one day of Rosh Chodesh, on the first day of the new month.  This year, there are thirty days in Kislev, hence we will observe Rosh Chodesh for two days, on the sixth and seventh days of Chanukah, Saturday and Sunday.  


Ordinarily when Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, we take out a second Torah scroll and after reading the regular portion for the week, we turn to the book of Numbers, the portion of Pinchas, which lists the special offerings to be brought on the holidays as a musaf, or additional, sacrifice that day. (Nowadays, in the absence of the Temple, we offer an additional, musaf, service on those days.)  Generally, on Rosh Chodesh when it occurs on Shabbat, we would read the two verses which speak of the Musaf offering on Shabbat followed by the five verses describing the additional offering for the new moon.


When Rosh Chodesh falls during Chanukah on a weekday, we would take out two scrolls as well, even though both readings come from the book of Numbers.  The principle that we follow is “tadir v’eino tadir, tadir kodem,” when you have two things, one that occurs more frequently than the other, the more frequent one takes precedence.  Hence we read the monthly reading for Rosh Chodesh first, calling three people to the Torah, and then taking the second Torah, we would call up a fourth aliyah, as is the usual practice for Rosh Chodesh, and read the appropriate section from the portion of Naso.


When Rosh Chodesh during Chanukah occurs on Shabbat as is the case this year, we end up taking out three Torah scrolls.  Following our principle, we read first the weekly portion from the first scroll, calling up six aliyot.  Then we turn to the second scroll and read the section for Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh from the portion of Pinchas for the seventh aliyah.  Finally, after chanting the half kaddish, we take the third scroll and read the appropriate section from Naso for the maftir.    


When it comes to choosing a haftarah, once again we have a choice of three possible readings.  We could read the regular haftarah for the portion of Miketz, a selection from the book of Kings which is seldom read, though it is the well-known story of King Solomon judging the two women who appear before him with the two babies, one alive and the other dead.  But since this portion almost always comes during Chanukah, we rarely get to read it.  We did read it last in 2020 and before that, the last time was in 2000.  The second possible haftarah is read whenever Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat.  It is the closing chapter of the book of Isaiah, which mentions a future time when all will come up to Jerusalem each Shabbat and New Moon to worship the Lord.  It happens to be my Bar Mitzvah haftarah, since my Bar Mitzvah was on Rosh Chodesh Sh’vat that year.  For Chanukah, we also have a haftarah.  In fact, we have two haftarot, since sometimes there are two shabbatot during Chanukah. The usual reading is the selection from the book of Zechariah, with his vision of an everburning menorah, and the message, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord.”  This is the same haftarah read for the portion of Beha’alotcha, usually in the late spring.  When Chanukah begins on Shabbat, the eighth day will also be on Shabbat and we would read, for the second Shabbat, the haftarah from the book of Kings which tells of ten golden menorot that Solomon set up in the First Temple.  The rule when we have multiple choices of haftarot is that we read the haftarah associated with the last of the Torah readings that morning, hence the Chanukah haftarah from Zechariah will be read on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh during Chanukah this year.


This is one of four occasions during the year when there is a possibility of three scrolls being read.  We always have three on Simchat Torah: the end of Deuteronomy, the beginning of Genesis, and the maftir reading from Numbers.  The other two possible times are when Shabbat Shekalim, before the new month of Adar, and Shabbat HaChodesh, before the new month of Nisan, coincide with Rosh Chodesh.  The same rules of precedence apply on those occasions as well.


What is the significance of the dedication of the altar?  Aside from the historical context of Chanukah, the reclaiming of the Holy Temple from the invaders and reconsecrating it to the God of Israel, the altar, the mizbe-ach, is one of the central components of the ancient sanctuary.  While the Ark of the Covenant which was placed in the original tabernacle and transferred to the First Temple built by Solomon, represented God’s outreach to His worshipers, the altar was the focus of the human response to the Divine.  In his commentary to the book of Exodus, Professor Nahum Sarna, provides a diagram of the desert tabernacle compound.  It shows an oblong enclosure divided into two squares.  The two lines of an “X” through the left-hand square which contains the actual tent of meeting, cross in the Holy of Holies over the ark of the covenant.  Similarly, in the right hand square, the two lines of an “X”  cross on the top of the altar which was placed in the courtyard in front of the tabernacle.  The mizbe-ach, the sacrificial altar, represents human effort to reach out to God through sacrificial offerings and later through prayer. In the Second Temple, in the days of the Maccabees, the Holy of Holies was empty, since the ark disappeared after the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians.  Once a year, the High Priest still entered into that sacred space to pray for his people on Yom Kippur.  However, the altar remained as a necessary element of this sanctuary.  The relatively small altar in the desert was later replaced by a much larger altar in both of the Temples.  


On Chanukah, as mentioned, a new altar was built to replace the desecrated one and to reconsecrate the cleansed Temple.  The altar’s dedication thus symbolized the thankful offerings and re-dedication of the Jewish people to our God, hence our recalling of the dedication of the original altar in Moses’s time on Chanukah seems most appropriate.  


When we sing Maoz Tzur each night of Chanukah, we recall that occasion, and we call upon God to restore that sanctuary once more:


“Maoz Tzur yeshuati, Protector, rock of our deliverance, it is fitting to praise You:  

Repair our house of prayer and we shall offer thanksgiving there.

When You prepare the slaughter of the enemy, exulting over us,

Then I will break out in song and praise, rededicating the altar, chanukat hamizbe-ach.”

​(translation from Siddur Lev Shalem).

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