Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg
December 20, 2004 – Number 5765-13
The Place of Torah in the Structure of Jewish Law
While the Torah, is the most central document of Judaism, the “constitution” as it were, of all of Jewish law, There is more to Jewish texts than just the Torah just as there are more American legal texts than just our constitution and bill of rights. The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, and thus it is also called the “Humash” from the Hebrew, “Hamesh” meaning, “the Five”. These books trace the History of our people from the creation of the world to the final days of Moses just before our ancestor’s entered the land of promise. These books contain the origin, not only of our History, but of our Law as well. Almost all of Jewish law traces itself back to verses in the Torah.
But Jewish History, or Jewish law for that matter, did not end with the People of Israel entering the land of their ancestors. Beginning with the book of Joshua, the story continues, about how the people conquered the land from the Canaanites and how they built their cities. Followed by the book of Judges, Samuel and Kings, these chapters chronicle the rise and fall of our people as they struggled to stay faithful to G-d in a new land and with a new life. No longer wandering nomads, the People are now settled into towns and cities and must make treaties and trade agreements with foreign governments. As they move from tribal judges to religious leaders to a monarchy, a class of prophets also rises to remind the people of their religious duties in the face of their political ambitions. Early prophets do not fear to reprimand a king or to speak out against sin, no matter how popular their message may be. The greatest example of this is the Prophet Elijah on Mt. Carmel where he stands alone before 400 pagan priests and in one moment turns the tide of the faith of the people away from idolatry to the worship of the G-d of Israel’s ancestors. As the political winds shift from the Egyptian empire to the new empires of Assyria and Babylon, the role of the Prophet is to make sense of the shifting political realities and to bring the people back to the worship of our G-d.
With the exile of our people to Babylonia, one would think the creative period of Ancient Israel was over. The Jewish G-d, however, is not like the pagan gods, who are limited to one place. G-d is with Israel in exile and is with Israel as Babylon yields to the Persian empire and the Israel returns from captivity. With the leadership of the last prophet, Ezra and the governor, Nehemiah, Israel slowly becomes the “Judaism” that we know today. The last books of the Bible, the “Writings” comes together. Some of these are historical books that bring Jewish history up to date. The others are popular stories that have important lessons for the Jewish people. Ruth, explains the genealogy of King David; The book of Esther is about Jewish life in Persia (and the holiday of Purim) and the Song of Songs, a long love poem, becomes a metaphor for the love of Israel for G-d. It is the Rabbis of the Talmud who close the “Writings” to new works and thus “canonize” the Bible. The bible they describe is the same bible we use today, we call it “TaNacH” the acrostic of “Torah, Neviim, Ketuvim” or Torah, Prophets and Writings.
The stories that did not make our bible were collected together to form a collection called the “Apocrypha” There are many reasons these stories did not make the Bible. Some are historically questionable. Some have no real moral or ethical lesson to teach. Some were too bloody, or were about parts of Jewish History that were not ready for prime time. The books of Maccabees containing the Hanukkah stories is part of this collection. The Sages were not big fans of the Hasmonean family and felt that the military victory was not worthy of a religious collection. Hanukkah is the first holiday on the Jewish calendar that does not have biblical connection. It would remain the only such holiday until modern times when Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Reunification Day) have been added to the calendar.
In spite of its “extra biblical” nature, Hanukkah remains a well loved and popularly observed festival. The Talmud notes that there was a more ancient midwinter festival that involved the lighting of candles and there are several reasons that the holiday would last eight days. Some say it is because the oil that was placed in the Menorah in the rededicated Temple in Jerusalem lasted for eight days. Others say the Hasmonians wanted to celebrate the last holiday they missed before capturing the Temple, and that would be the eight days of Sukkot. Still others note that all dedication ceremonies of the Temple were eight days long and that is why this Festival of Dedication (Hanukkah) is eight days long. Biblical holidays always have clear meanings and rituals, Hanukkah, being extra-biblical, has more flexibility and thus there are more questions and explanations as to its origins and laws.