Publicizing the Miracle or Publicizing Miracle? R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev on Hanukkah

(a response to Jeffrey Goldberg)

[On December 10, Congresswoman Rashida Tliab tweeted a Hanukkah greeting to her Jewish neighbors. In it, she writes, “Hanukkah inspires me, especially during this difficult time. I hope we can all remember that even in the most unexpected moments, miracles can happen.” Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic responded, “Just noting that the Hanukkah miracle to which she refers is the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel.” This is my response to Goldberg]

Why Hanukkah? Or, perhaps, what is Hanukkah? This is how the Babylonia Talmud introduces its only real discussion on Hanukkah (Talmud Shabbat 21b). It then proceeds to tell the familiar story of the lone canister of oil found, untainted by impure hands, on Temple grounds and how one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days. And so Hanukkah became the story of the miracle of oil, more aptly, in the thought of the Hasidic master, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1809), the story of miracle more generally.

The festival is multilayered and we have pre-rabbinic documentation of its existence, in 1-2 Maccabees and Josephus Flavius. Its specific liturgy ‘Al ha-Nisim is one of the oldest extant Jewish prayers, claimed by some to extend back to the late Second Temple period.

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Probably the earliest written document that we have that mentions the events of Hanukkah is the first letter attached to 2 Maccabees, which bears the date 124 BCE and is from the Jews in Jerusalem to the Jews in Egypt. It tells them about the earlier “critical distress” and calls upon them to celebrate the restoration of Temple sacrifices on 25 Kislev. A second letter refers to this festival as that of the “purification of the Temple.” In the rest of 2 Maccabees, the Maccabees’ military victories are discussed; the festival, however, remains linked to the Temple. Even 1 Maccabees, which is pro-Hasmonean, frames its celebration as the rededication of the Temple altar. None of these ancient texts mention any miracle of the oil.

And yet, by the time Hanukkah is established centuries later, certainly by the Middle Ages, the miracle of the oil becomes foregrounded, and the military victory recedes even further. Jews didn’t generally read the books of the Maccabees, and while the victory was the context of the holiday, it was not its centerpiece.

With the advent of Zionism, many, including Ben Gurion, viewed the Bavli story as a diasporic deflection and drew on 1-2 Maccabees to retell the story as a Jewish military victory fit for the foundation of new Jewish nationalism. Hanukkah became a nationalist holiday, a subversion of the Bavli’s version of the story.

The holiday moved from “miracle” more generally to “the miracle” of the Hasmonean dynasty. This transition muted some of the more creative ways Jews used the motif of “miracle” (and not “the miracle”) as a universal trope depicting Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Our case study will be R. Levi Yitzhak’s Kedushat Levi, an early Hasidic text whose first edition only including his teachings on Hanukkah and Purim. Later, expanded editions included his sermons of the Torah and festivals. The standard Warsaw printing of Kedushat Levi in 1876 includes much of the material on Hanukkah and Purim from the first edition.

R. Levi Yitzhak’s text, translated below, suggests that more generally festivals were not established to commemorate a specific event but rather to mark the return of the spiritual potency of that event in our world. Hanukkah becomes paradigmatic in that it is the first time the repository of blessing that was signed and sealed on Rosh Ha-Shana through Sukkot becomes manifest in the world in the new year. Thus its name “Hanukkah” is etymologically tied to “restoration” or “beginning.” What is revealed more generally is the very notion of miracle that suggests that the word is never in a state of stasis but in a perpetual state of renewal. And this power of renewal originates in its source in the divine. Interestingly, Levi Yitzhak does not limit this realization to the Jews but in fact suggests that this notion of divine renewal will be recognized by everyone through the festival and, in particular the festival of Hanukkah, because Hanukkah is the first moment of the new year that points to this renewal. “By means of these recognizable miracles everyone will see that the world is in a perpetual state of renewal and regeneration (ha-olam hu me-khudash). That is, everyone will realize that there is an originary point (‘ilat kol ha’ilat) that renews the world.”

R. Levi Yitzhak interestingly avoids viewing Hanukkah as a celebration of any particular miracle but rather sees the particular miracle in question as a sign of the notion of miracle more generally, miracle as a window into the notion that the world is in a constant state of renewal and change. The point of these festivals, established to mark the return of the miraculous to the world, is expansive, even universal in reach. Citing the great commentator R. Moses Nahmanides, R. Levi Yitzhak writes, “Elsewhere he writes that miracles give testimony to everyone that the world is in a constant state of renewal and that which is recognizable in the lower world also makes an impression in the upper world. And also the upper world is in a constant state of joy in the very notion of renewal.”

In short, as the embodiment of miracle, Hanukkah is not primarily about a historical moment for R. Levi Yirzhak but about the historical moment as a sign of the power of change and the realization that the word is not arbitrary, as an arbitrary world leaves little room for miracle. This fortifies the Talmudic sages choice to sideline the military victory of the Hasmoneans and place miracle (though the story of the oil) on center stage.

So in the short back and forth between Rashida Tlaib and Jeffrey Goldberg on the meaning of Hanukkah, it seems that Tlaib is far closer to R. Levi Yitzhak than Goldberg, even channeling R. Levi Yitzhak’s view when she wrote, “Hanukkah inspires me, especially during this difficult time. I hope we can all remember even in the most unexpected moments, miracles can happen.” This, R. Levi Yitzhak argues, is precisely what Hanukkah is meant to convey.


Below is my translation of Levi Yitzhak’s text on Hanukkah

Text: Kedushat Levi, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, “Hagadah Me-Saba d’be-Atuna” 19d-20a.

We also need to understand why it is that on Purim we read Megillat Esther that publicizes the miracle in the days of Mordecai and Esther, and yet we don’t read of the miracles of Matthias ben Yohanan the High Priest and Yehudit [who killed Sisra] that God performed for them during the evil Greek rule.[1]

We know that by counting the year from Tishri, Hanukkah come first, then Purim, Passover, and Shavuot. It is known that all the miracles and all the revelations that are disclosed in those earlier days are once again revealed each year. For example, on Hanukkah the miracles of Hanukkah and the supernal rays of kindness (hasadim) that were revealed to Matthias the High Priest [are revealed to us] as we kindle the Hanukkah lights.[2] And on Purim the miracles and hasadim that were revealed in the days of Mordecai and Esther are revealed each year [on Purim].  And so too the resonance of Matan Torah on Shavuot, and on Rosh ha-Shana the resonance of creation. This is written in the teachings of Isaac Luria (the Ari).  

Thus the blessing [for Hanukkah and Purim] of ‘Al Ha-Nisim [on miracles] states, “who has done miracles for our ancestors in those days and in our days.” See what is written in Turei Zahav [R. David Ha-Levi Segal, 1586-1667, commentary to Shulkhan Arukh “Orakh Hayyim 582:5] who inquires about the locution “in our days.” There he invokes the language of “in our days” attributed to Levush Mordecai [R. Mordecai Yaffe].[3] I am a simpleton (pe’ut ve za’ir) and it seems to mean exactly what it says.[4] 

We need to understand why it is that when they established [Hanukkah] as a yom tov, they included liturgy on the miracle of the eight days, and they also established Purim. And yet they didn’t establish a yom tov in days of the wars with Sisra [and Yael’s murder of Sisra] and the wars with Sanharib, even when there as a great miracle and God wanted to anoint Hezekiah as messiah. And this would be the case for other miracles that happen all the time.

The miracles that the sages and prophets of old and the Men of the Great Assembly decided to establish were those that, because of our righteous deeds [at the time], they could disclose the hasadim [of that miracle] each year [on that day]. That miracle would be disclosed again every year on the merit of the good deeds of our ancestors. On this criteria Hanukkah, Purim and the three pilgrimage festivals were established. But the wars with Sisra and Sanharib etc. our ancestors determined that they did not have enough strength to reveal the hasadim in every generation. Thus they did not establish them as a yom tov.[5]

This was then the intention of the Men of the Great Assembly when they establish the liturgy, “who made miracles for our ancestor in those days and in our days.” That is, the hasadim and miracles and resonances that were operational in the time of Matthias ben Yohanan High Priest, will again be revealed “in our days.” The ‘Al ha Nismim prayer says, “To your people Israel who you brought great salvation and liberation like this day (ke-yom ha-zeh).”. It seems that “and liberation like this day” is superfluous. As I understand it, its inclusion in legitimate because “on this day they were liberated” which was in the days of Matthias… And thus it says that they established the yom tov [of Hanukkah] “another year” and mandated the recitation of Hallel.  That is, they recognized that the resonance and miracle and hasadim [of those days] always exist. That is, the language, “established,” means they established [or determined] that these [hasadim] would be revealed in every generation.

By means of these recognizable miracles everyone will see that the world is in a perpetual state of renewal and regeneration (ha-olam hu me-khudash). That is, everyone will realize that there is an originary source (‘ilat kol ha’ilat) that renews the world. And all the worlds are renewed except for the renewer, blessed be God, as we see in the Tur Shulkhan Arukh remarks on the words of Kiddush “remembering the exodus from Egypt.”

And Nahmanides in his commentary to the Torah, states this in many places, in particular at the end of parhat “Bo”. Elsewhere he writes that miracles give testimony to everyone that the world is in a constant state of renewal and that which is recognizable in the lower world also makes an impression in the upper world. And also the upper world is in a constant state of joy in the very notion of renewal.

We know that Hanukkah is from the same language as renewal, as we read, Sing the song of the restoration (hanukat) of the Temple. (Ps. 30:1). Since this [notion of miracle] reveals to the entire world the notion of the [always] renewing supernal realm, we call it Hanukkah, from the language of renewal (hitkhadshut).

It is also called Hanukkah because we know that all the good works of all year are written and signed on Rosh ha-Shana, Yom Kippur and Shemini Azeret, which are revealed each day as I will explain when I explore the secret of Rosh ha-Shana.

Regarding Hanukkah, the hasadim of Hanukkah are included in that which was sealed on Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur, as they were in the time of Matthias. And the same is true of the hasadim of Purim and Passover, and Shavuot. And the first resonance of the entire year after Rosh Ha-Shana, Yom Kippur and Shmini Azeret is Hanukkah, in the language of beginning. And thus the first iteration [of those new hasadim] is called Hanukkah, as I wrote earlier meaning the restoration (hanukat) of the Temple. This is the first supernal resonance of the new year and thus it is called Hanukkah.

[1] Of course there is no Megillat Hanukkah. There are four different books of the Maccabees, only the first two of which tell the story of Hanukkah but they were written in Greek. And neither tell the story way the Babylonia Talmud tell the story. So R. Levi Yitzhak here is not referring to any particular story, just the story itself. On Sisra and Yehudit see The Book of Judges chapter 4, 5.

[2] Hasadim is a Lurianic concept that speaks of elements of divine light that embody the attribute of kindness, from the right side. R. Levi Yitzhak seem to be using the term colloquially and not applying to any specific cosmic element.

[3] Segal comments on the Shulkahn Arukh’s statement that “we do not say in the blessing ‘like you did to them’ but rather, ‘and you performed miracles for them in those days.’” Segal remarks, “It appears here it should also say, ‘and you should also perform [these miracles] for us’ because that is the way of prayer. In other words, God should perform miracles for us the way God did to them. R. Levi Yitzhak will reject this rendering of the blessing by suggesting that the miracles performed then remain in the world and are revealed to us each year. Its is the saem miracle year after year.

[4] That is, those miracles of old and the spiritual force behind them are revealed again every year at that time.

[5] It is unclear whether the miracles themselves were not potent enough to return every on those days or the sages, for whatever reason, did not have the capacity to do so.

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