The Mystical Understanding of Chanukah
By Avi Lazerson
In commemorating Chanukah, we recall the deeds of the ancient Greeks who entered the Holy Temple and defiled the oils which were used in lighting the menorah. The Hasmonean fighters rebelled and drove the Greeks out. When they came into the Temple and searched for pure oil with the seal of the High Priest, all they found was just one vial amongst the many defiled ones. This single vial of oil burnt in the menorah and illuminated the sanctuary for eight days! This was the miracle of Chanukah.
In mystical thought, oil is symbolic of chochmah, the highest aspect of the intellect from which inspirational thought is derived. The Talmud mentions that in a certain area in Israel, Tekoa, where the use of olive oil had become common, chochmah had also become common. Just as chochmah is related to the highest level in the intellect, inspired thinking, it is also related to the fear of G-d as it is written in Psalms 111, "the beginning of chochmah is the fear of G-d."
The mystics understand that the intellect is divided into three divisions, chochmah, binah and daat. Binah is the aspect of the thinking process in which we understand by comparison and analyses. Daat is the part of the intellect which connects his abstract thought to the reality of emotions and action.
An example of binah is a student who studies his chemistry text book and through careful consideration of the material can understand the subject matter. Another example is by comparing two given physical phenomena in order to arrive at a common understanding of them such as studying the effect of gravity on various objects to understand gravity. Chochmah, on the other hand, is inspiration which brings to thought. Chochmah is like a teacher who gives a lesson; whereas binah is like a student who must digest and understand what has been taught. Chochmah is also compared to seeing, whereas binah is considered hearing; seeing does not necessarily entail understanding even though it cannot be doubted, whereas hearing implies understanding.
The Greeks were the world's great thinkers. They gave the world Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, and many more. They boasted of various impressive schools of philosophy, art, and literature. The Greeks were a light unto the rest of the world and their ideas spread to many lands. Much of today's western thought is based upon their Greek philosophy.
The Greeks believed in utilizing the mind to its fullest and they exalted the greatness of the human intellect. They admired great thinkers and disdained those who clung to superstitions. Although they believed in the existence of good and evil, and that man should live according to what was good they defined them by the human intellect.
They defined intellectual thought as binah. They accepted chochmah, but only insofar as it could be verified through intellectual means. In other words, they utilized binah to verify chochmah.
The Jewish belief is that the concept of good and evil were not humanly defined, but they are defined by G-d in the holy Torah. To us, chochmah is the highest gift, a divine present from G-d. We must use our understanding to fathom the divine dictates of the Torah and thereby reach an understanding of the divine. But it is merely a human's understanding of the infinite wisdom of G-d and not the essential actual understanding of G-d's rationale. To the Jew, binah is subservient to chochmah.
Although to some degree the Greeks envied the Jewish mind, they rejected the subjugation of our thinking to what they viewed as dogma. To the Greeks, the understanding mind (binah) was the highest form of human endeavor and was praiseworthy. In their eyes, our suppression of our minds (binah) in view of the chochmah (inspiration) of the Torah was a derision of our human faculties.
Therefore their profaning the holy oil in the Temple is mystically understood as an attempt to quell the Jewish subjugation of the mind to a source which is above the mind, chochmah of the Torah. Yet although they tried to profane the oil, the source of our chochmah, G-d Himself, caused them to miss one small vial of oil.
When the Maccabees found this lone vial, representing the infinite chochmah of the Torah they ignored the defiled vials of oil (representing the wisdom of the Greeks). They used this pure oil to light the menorah. The Menorah itself represents daat the connection between the intellect and the actualization of the self. In this manner they expressed their desires to return to G-d and His holy Torah. G-d in turn showed his satisfaction with their actions by allowing a miracle to occur. In place of burning for one night, the oil lasted for eight days.
The number eight in mystical thought is significant. Since the world was created in seven days, seven is synonymous with nature and all that is worldly. The position of the Greeks was to give esteem to all achievements that were based on man's worldly intellect. The eighth day represents one above seven, one above nature - the divine, the infinite, and the G-dly. The miracle of Chanukah is eight days reflecting G-d's favor upon our pure actions.
The menorah in the Temple had only seven branches, unlike our Chanukah menorahs which have eight. The seven branched menorah burnt and illuminated the Temple for eight days. This means that the seven branched menorah, symbolizing the seven days of creation, nature and worldliness, was elevated by oil which should have burnt only one day. The eight days represents the aspect of the divine, the aspect of above nature but it is in the seven branched menorah. This is the divine light illuminating the mundane world.
Today when we light an eight branched menorah, we must ignite our divine spark. We must reach to the level above nature. When we kindle our eight branched menorah for eight days, we are reaching up to G-d to relight our holy spark.
May we, like our brave ancestors, fulfill our aspirations and achieve a radiance of the G-dly here in our world.
from the December 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine