What is Chanukah?


What is Chanukah?

By Mendele Mokher Seforim

Translated from Hebrew by Herbert J. Levine and Reena Spicehandler


“A great miracle happened for me on Chanukah.”


“What about me, Shmuel? Wasn’t I also a part of the miracle?”


“That’s how it is, Ignatz, my friend: a miracle for me, but not for you.”


“That’s always the way with you Jews from the old House of Study: you impose your Judaism on us, the practitioners of a contemporary Judaism, as if Judaism belongs to you and you hold the monopoly on it.”


“What you just said, Ignatz, has nothing to do with the story that I began to tell you and is really not relevant. You are now a welcome guest, invited to play cards and to eat the Chanukah feast with the rest of our esteemed friends. Nevertheless, since you have begun arguing with me and, as the others have not yet arrived, I will not hold back.


“It’s true that all kinds of Jews, whether Orthodox or enlightened, new as well as old, are Jews. I, for example, who from my youth have grown up in God’s tentin the study rooms of traditional teachers and in yeshivas—I am a Jew. And you too, who from your youth grew up in their secular schools, are a Jew. But there is a great difference between you and me. I, and all those like me whose Torah is in their innards and whose Judaism is in their very bones, detect a special flavor in the words and practices of Judaism, whether we understand them or not. This is true even when we stray and deny God’s existence, God forbid. Neither you, nor any who return to Torah can experience this taste, even after you have repented of your actions and undertaken the customs with great piety and spiritual intention. For the yoke of Torah and commandments was never upon you, nor did you seek to modify or deny it.”


“Shmuel, you speak as one of those who while away their time in the House of Study. You speak words of hairsplitting and proofs, divorced from reality. As long as you do not bring proof, judgment is on my side, and I have the right to disagree and say that there is nothing substantial in your words.”


“You want proof, my friend? I have piles and piles of proof…”


“Good evening, good evening!” cried the invited guests as they entered the house. ”What’s gotten into you, friends, that you are shouting and seething in this manner, just like yeshiva students, vanquishing each other with the rules of card playing, to the point that you are not paying any attention to us? We twice said ‘Good evening’ and without any response from you.”


“Ah… ah, welcome gentlemen! Welcome, Mr. Todros, Mr. Zerach, Mr Gimpel…”


“What are you Jews discussing? Since we interrupted you, Shmuel, in the middle of your argument, you have every right to resume it, while we escape to the next room and greet your wife, Sarah.”


“Please, friends, remain here. I am not speaking about anything confidential. Please, take seats and listen if you like. I had begun to tell our friend here, my great Chanukah miracle.”


“Speak, Shmuel, and we too shall listen, but don’t keep us here too long with unnecessary elaboration. This night of ‘What is Chanukah?’ was created for the sole purpose of playing cards until the crack of dawn.”


“The event itself was insignificant, its only importance residing in the worthy outcome coming to me because of it. This is why I have made a regular practice of recalling it on this night.


“In those days, and perhaps in these as well, there are no better days for Jewish young people (who sit in a narrow room crowded together before their rabbi from morning until nine o’clock at night) than the eight days of Chanukah, which contain within them redemption from slavery, liberation from the study of Torah, and Chanukah gelt given by parents and relatives.


“I remember that that on the eighth night of Chanukah there was joy in my father’s house. I was yet a small boy. The eight candles were glimmering in the window next to the entrance and their pure light seemed to my eyes like the illumination of the stars. My mother was frying goose fat and the smell of schmaltz filled my nostrils. My father and his guests were sitting at the table, discussing and making fine distinctions in matters of Torah, while rocking, gesticulating, emphasizing with their thumbs and shouting out. Their words were joyous! Out of this cacaphony of voices, the Talmudic phrase ‘What is Chanukah?’ emerged several times in the singsong tones of one asking a difficult and serious question. The expressions on the diners’ faces and in their glances revealed that they sought a solution to this mystery, ‘What is Chanukah?’ All eyes were drawn to one member of the group who raised his voice and expounded a rabbinic teaching. He elaborated on every word with great force and precision, clarifying and deepening its meaning, while wrinkling his brow. He teased out many new interpretations and sharp conclusions. Out of all of this I only understood these words:


‘Idol worshippers defiled all of the holy oil in the sanctuary, and after the Hasmoneans vanquished them they could find only one jug of oil with the seal of the High Priest intact. This jug contained only enough oil for one day, but a miracle occurred and it lasted eight days.’


“Out of my love for Chanukah (for I loved Chanukah as all young children do), and out of my great joy that evening, I forgot my fear of my father and the respect owed to parents and elders, daring to say in all simplicity, ‘A jug of oil that lasts eight days is not such a great miracle! A great miracle would be if it could provide candlelight for a full year. Then the entire year would be Chanukah, a year of redemption from difficult study and the discipline of hard hands…’ I was still speaking as father’s hand shot out and slapped me in the face.


“‘You wild animal! You want freedom from Torah study and from your rabbi?! You want to be an ignoramus?!’ My father glared at me, full of anger, his hand poised to strike my cheek a full ten times. A miracle happened to me: my cap fell off my head from the first blow. In the time it took me to cover my head with the edge of my garment and bend over to retrieve my cap, my father’s anger had cooled. Why do you laugh, Ignatz? Are you making fun of me?”


“Here’s your answer, Shmuel, my friend. I’ve just realized that I was overly hasty and became angry with you for no reason, so I was filled with laughter. “


“Believe me, my friend, just as you were mistaken this time, you will never be justified in quarreling with me. It is envy that causes you and others who have returned to our faith to detect slights where none exist. You would even take pleasure in finding fault with your own ancestors. There is no one more hot-headed or severe in judgment than a born-again Jew! Even the truly righteous could not withstand their critique, begging your pardon. But,” Shmuel added, “that slap in itself would not be worth remembering if it were not for the resulting intellectual and spiritual revolution that took place within me.”


“Leave this discussion between you for another time,” said the guests. “Now, Shmuel, shorten your story and conclude it quickly.”


“In short, my friends, this slap I received from my father’s hand was not in vain. It stuck in my memory along with all the enlightened discussions on that evening concerning ‘What is Chanukah?’. I became passionate, even in my youth, regarding this question, contemplating it in order to dig deeply and truly know ‘What is Chanukah. In the beginning, I knew only that on Chanukah one sings ’For the Miracles,’ where it is written: In the days of the Hasmonean, Mattathias son of Yochanan, the High Priest, and his sons, when a wicked Hellenic government rose up against the people Israel to cause them to forget God’s Torah, the Holy One made a miracle and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the arrogant into the hands of the students of His Torah. And afterwards, they purified the sanctuary, kindled lights and designated eight days of Chanukah.


“I would muse on this, thinking: The strong were the evil Greeks and the weak were Mattathias and his sons, and with them, the righteous ones studying Torah, who were just like the rabbis and students in our House of Study today. The Greeks set out to war with horses and chariots, while our people did so with repentance, prayer and outcries to God.’ I had no idea that Judah Maccabee and his brothers were military heroes. I knew nothing of that, nor did my rabbi teach me about it. Suddenly on that night of ‘What is Chanukah?’ in my father’s house, when we were discussing ‘For the Miracles,’ I heard that some did not believe that a miracle had really happened and others thought that the miracle was not the whole story, and this was indeed hard for me.


The teaching concerning the jug of oil became even more perplexing. If there had been only enough oil in the jug to light a candle for one night, but a miracle occurred and they were able to light candles for eight nights, then the miracle applied to only seven of the days, so why were eight days of Chanukah established? Thus I became entangled in a thicket of research and I moved from question to question, until I went astray and looked into secular books, the annals of our nation. My eyes were opened to many great deeds and wondrous people, strong heroes who are the glory of our people. Now, my friends, I really understood ‘What is Chanukah’.”


Translation copyright © Herbert J. Levine and Reena Spicehandler

“What is Chanukah?” was published in Yiddish as “Vos iz Chanukah" in Progress (Warsaw) 1912, and in Hebrew as “Mai Chanukah?”  in Kol Kitvei Mendele Mockher Sefarim, Krakow- Odessa, 1909-1912, Vol. 3.

Mendele Mokher Seforim (the author) (Mendele the Bookseller in Yiddish ) is the pen name of Shalom Yakov Abramowitz (1835-1917). Although known as the “grandfather of Yiddish Literature”, he is generally acknowledged as the founder of modern fiction in Hebrew as well as Yiddish. In fact, he began his career as a Hebrew writer, later writing in Yiddish as a way to reach a wider audience. In addition to stories that portrayed Jewish shtetl life with honesty and without judgment, Mendele wrote essays and drama in both Hebrew and Yiddish throughout a life spent mostly in Russia.

Herbert Levine and Reena Spicehandler (the translators) have contributed translations of Agnon’s stories to two volumes of the Agnon Library: A City and Its Fullness and An Outcast and Other Stories (Toby Press). They are currently translating secular Israeli poems found in prayer books of congregations in Israel that are working to encourage a new Israeli Judaism to emerge. Reena taught Hebrew literature at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, was an editor of the Kol HaNeshamah prayerbook series and served several congregations as an interim rabbi. Herb is the author of Words for Blessing the World: Poems in Hebrew and English and Sing Unto God a New Song: A Contemporary Reading of the Psalms. Their translation projects have grown out of their chevruta studying Hebrew literature.

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