King Yannai and the Story of Chanukah
The Talmud is our guide to a spiritual life. It informs all of our discussions about Judaism and is the basis for all of our laws. And yet when it comes to Chanukah there is almost nothing in the Talmud about Chanukah. There are a few passages here and there, but certainly nothing that relates even remotely to the quantity and quality that we find with respect to other holidays.
Put simply: there is a tractate of Talmud for the holiday of Purim, that is called Megillah, but there is no tractate for Chanukah.
Why is there no tractate Chanukah?
There is a story in the Talmud about King Yannai (Kiddushin, 66a) that suggests an answer to this question.
Who is King Yannai?
King Yannai, also known as Alexander Janneus, ruled over Judea from 103 BCE to 76 BCE.
Yannai is also a Hasmonean, a direct descendant of the Maccabees. He is the third son of Yochanan Hyrkanos, and grandson of Shimon Ha-Maccabee, and great-grandson of Mattisyahu Hakohen, the leader of Hasmonean revolt, which we celebrate for eight days on the holiday of Chanukah.
It is fair to say that when the rabbis of the Talmud tell us a story about Yannai we should read that story not only as a reflection of what they are telling us about Yannai himself but also about what they are telling us about the Hasmonean dynasty as a whole.
The particular story goes as follows:
“There was once an incident with King Yannai who went and battled in a place called Kochalit, in the desert. He conquered sixty cities and upon his return he rejoiced greatly. He called together all of the sages and said, ‘Our ancestors ate only maluchim when building the Temple, we too will only eat maluchim, out of respect for our ancestors.’ So they brought out maluchim on tables of gold.
There was a man there who was a cynic and a bad man. His name was Elazar ben Poira. Elazar said to King Yannai. ‘King Yannai: the hearts of the Pharisees are against you.’
King Yannai said: ‘What should I do?’ He said: “Put the tzitz [of the High Priest] between your eyes and as a result this will cause them to have to stand up out of respect for you.’ Yannai did this and everyone stood.
There was a sage there named Yehudah ben Gedidyah. He turned to Yannai and said: ‘King Yannai: It is too much! You already have the crown of kingship. Leave the crown of the Kehunah for the descendants of Aaron.’
[One reason why the sages were upset is because there were rumors suggesting that Yannai was not fit to be a kohen since his mother had been captured and the offspring of a captured woman is not considered a kohen.] For ‘they said’ that his mother had been captured in Modi’im. But [after this incident] they investigated further and found no basis for these rumors. So the sages of Israel left after havng angered the king.
Elazar ben Poira then said to the king: ‘King Yannai, if a commoner would be attacked in this fashion it would be very wrong, it is even more wrong about you since you are both king and kohen gadol.’
Yannai said: ‘What shall I do?’ Elazar said, ‘You must kill all the sages.’ Yannai responded, ‘But then what will be of the Torah, torah mah tehei aleaha?’ He answered: ‘The Torah will remain wrapped in a corner and whoever wants to can come and study it.’
Rav Nachman b Yitzchak taught that Yannai was immediately declared an apikorus, because he should have responded that it is reasonable to assume that everyone can learn the written Torah, aval torah she baal peh, mai, but how can we say this about the oral law?
At once he went and killed all of the sages of Israel. And the world was desolate until Shimon ben Shetach came and restored the Torah.”
On the basis of this story we can see multiple reasons why the rabbis might have been really upset with the Hasmoneans.
Most obviously, it says that King Yannai went and killed all the sages. That in and of itself is enough for them to fall out of favor.
On top of that, it says that the Hasmoneans took for themselves too much power. They took both the kingship and the kehunah. This is a violation of the Torah and a blemish on their legacy.
But the story also tells us of the disdain that the Hasmoneans had for the Oral Law; i.e. the Talmud. Yannai and his advisors believed anyone could guard the Oral Law; in their minds there was nothing special about it. It is natural that in return the sages would deem it inappropriate to devote a tractate of the Oral Law to the holiday of the Hasmoneans.
The Talmud is the epicenter of our tradition around which everything else revolves.
We take the primacy of the Talmud in Judaism for granted today, but it was not always certain that this would be the case.
This past week we came across an interesting passage in the daf yomi (Bava Metzi’a 92). The Talmud quotes a teaching that Rav says that he found in a work called, Megillat Setarim that he had found in the house of his uncle Rabbi Chiyah.
Rav was a bridge between the era of the Mishnah and the Talmud, so his uncle R. Chiyah lived at the very end of the Tannaitic period.
What is this Megillat Setarim that Rav found in his uncle’s house?
The word seter means secret, so Rashi says that this work was a scroll that was hidden away because it was forbidden to write the Oral Law and so R. Chiyah had to hide it lest he forget what he learned.
There is another approach that was suggested around three hundred years before Rashi. This is an approach found in a responsum of Rav Notranai Gaon (9th c). He writes:
“Megillat Setarim: A scroll which contains halakhic decisions [halakhot pesukot], a type of book of halakhot that is unlike the Talmud, which everyone has, therefore it is called Megillat Setarim. (Cited by R. Meir Triebitz,
According to Rav Natronai Gaon at the same time that the Mishnah was being written there was an alternative work called Megillat Setarim. The Mishnah records debates, minority opinions, and even has some stories and ethical homilies in it. In contrast the Megillat Setarim as imagined by Rav Natronai sounds like a simple code of law.
Megillat Setarim did not stand the test of time. History did not deem it worthy to be saved. Instead, the Mishnah and the Talmud were saved and elevated to be the center of our educational and spiritual lives.
Today we often assume that the development of Jewish law represents a movement from the wordy, debate filled pages of Talmud to the more and more concise codes like the Shulchan Arukh. Indeed, Rambam writes that this is the reason why he wrote what was then considered a very concise code, a fourteen volume work known as the Mishnah Torah. He wanted to publish a practical digest that would be user-friendly and would stand as an alternative to the Talmud.
In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, Rambam writes: "A person should study the written Torah first, and then read this [book], and thereby know the entire oral Torah, so that he will not need to read any other book in between them."
Of course, as great as Rambam was, he was wrong about this. His work has become a supplement to the Talmud. Not a replacement of. There are more codes and halakhic digests than ever before. But none of them actually replace the Talmud. More people are studying the Talmud now than at anytime in Jewish history.
The example of Megillat Setarim shows us that people have always thought that there could be a replacement for the Talmud. The Talmud is after all filled with tangential material and rejected opinions. Sometimes modern people read the Talmud and find our selves embarrassed by some of the language used to describe people – language that many of us would shudder at and avoid today. Some days we study the Talmud and we read about their ancient medical practices. Inevitably we wonder, how is it considered Torah study to read about the medicinal practices of a community from two thousand years ago?
And yet, for all of its difficulties, the Talmud continues to thrive.
It is because the world of the Talmud represents an ideal world where people hold very strong opinions and sit and argue and discuss their differences with each other. It represents a world of debate and give and take. In this sense, the Talmud is the paradigm of a beautiful society. There is always room for spiritual growth as long as we are willing to listen and learn from each other.
The Talmud even records debate about the murderous actions of King Yannai. The Talmud records a different story in which King Yannai willingly sits at the feet of the sages and takes orders from their court. In this version, it is not Yannai who kills the sages, but the sages themselves who diminish themselves and are killed by the angel Gabriel because they are afraid to share their own opinion (Sanhedrin, 19a).
Parashat Miketz contains a scene that is a biblical first. Yosef has held Shimon back in Egypt. He refuses to release him until the brothers bring Binyamin to see him. Yaakov refuses to allow Binyamin to travel down to Egypt. He fears that what is at stake is the loss of another child.
Reuven comes forward and argues that Yaakov should allow the brothers to take Binyamin to Egypt (42:37). Yaakov rejects his argument. Then Yehudah comes forward and makes another request (43:3). Yaakov again rejects the request. Then Yehudah comes forth again with another approach and this time Yaakov agrees (43: 8-11).
This is a turning point in the story. If Yaakov had not listened there would never have been a reunion between Yosef and his family. This was the transformative moment in the story. Yaakov risked everything. He put the life of his youngest and dearest son at risk in order to save the entire family.
It is also the first time in the bible where there is a series of arguments, back and forths, and someone – no less the patriarch of the family! -- changes his mind as a result of the argument.
In contrast, think of Yitzchak who is not convinced by Rivka to bless Yaakov. Instead, Yaakov simply steals the blessings. When Sarah tells Avraham to throw out Hagar, Avraham turns to God and is told to obey his wife’s request.
Here we have something new. An argument in which the parties don’t turn to God to decide and don’t deceive each other. The argument is won and lost on its own merits.
The willingness to engage in an argument and be open to change is what saved the family of Yaakov. It is exactly what the very existence of the Talmud is about. The points are debated and decided on their own merits.
This is exactly what a spiritual community should be about.
A spiritual community should be about diversity of opinions and a willingness to engage in a discussion even with people with whom we passionately disagree.
This is why the Hasmoneans are rejected as a spiritual role model. According to the story (in tractate Kiddushin) they tried to combine the kahuna and the kingship. Ultimately that means they did not want halakhic debate. The king would issue his ruling about what the halakha is and that is final.
Not only is such an approach not reflective of our faith, it is the opposite of our faith, which demands diversity of opinion and openness to engage with others with whom we disagree.
For this reason it goes without saying that every single person in the world is welcome to daven in our synagogue. Even people who we I think are sinful and deeply problematic and should not be given a broad forum for their views can still come and pray with us – without exception. To suggest that someone cannot pray in our synagogue is the opposite of everything I believe in.
The first words we chant on Yom Kippur night are, anu matirin lehitpallel im haavaryanim, we are permitted to pray with sinners.
That is what the lesson of the Talmud is all about. We should sit and pray and study Torah with all who come, no matter what we think of them. Our tradition requires the give and take of conversation and discussion. The minority opinions are still part of a spiritual community. This is how we grow.
When Yehudah engages in a give and take argument with Yaakov, the destiny of the Jewish people shifts forever. In doing so, he also showed us a model for our own lives. In order to be a community that reaches our spiritual potential, our congregation needs to be a place that is reflective of the Talmud: a place for all to come and grow together.
Sign Up for Weekly Torah Email!