Good Spirits

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

One of the earliest discoveries of an allusion in the Torah to the holiday of Chanukah is recorded by the 16th century Italian scholar, Rav Yehoshua Boaz in his work Shiltei HaGiborim.

When the brothers return for a second time, this time with Binyamin, Yosef directs the man in charge of his house to bring the brothers in to dine with him. Yosef then instructs him:

וטבח טז) — And slaughter, טבח והכן — meat and prepare it

The last five letters in this phrase ח והכן, are the letters that comprise the name of this holiday, חנוכה, Chanuka. Additionally, the remaining letters in this phrase, וטבח טב, are numerically equivalent to the number of candles one uses during the eight days of Chanuka, ascending from one on the first day to eight on the last for a total of 36. (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8)

If one also adds the letter ח that appears at the end of the second word to the previous ones, the total is 44, which represents the total number of candles including the שמש, the extra light we add to the ascending number of candles on each of the eight nights, that serves as the ‘utility’ candle we use to ignite the others every night.

Is this merely a ‘clever’ observation? It would seem totally out of any context with the theme of the holiday. Truth be told, the Shiltei HaGiborim suggests that the placement of this reference specifically here is to emphasize the custom to celebrate the holiday with a festive meal, even though it is not mandatory as it is by virtually every other holiday.

This portion indeed is always read in proximity to Chanuka, making this ‘hint’ very relevant. But we still may wonder whether there is any significance in the story of Yosef and his brothers at this juncture, other than their being engaged in the activity of eating, that is germane to Chanuka.

The Talmud explains that the ‘slaughtering’ and the ‘preparation’ mentioned here refers to two separate details. Yosef firstly told his aide to display to the brothers the severed part of the animal’s neck so that they may observe that it was ritually slaughtered properly in accordance with Jewish tradition. He then told him to ‘prepare’ the meat by extracting the גיד הנשה, the sciatic nerve, in their presence, for that too was prohibited to them for consumption in commemoration of the victorious battle Yaakov had with the angel of Esav, who wounded Yaakov in that area of his body.

The Talmud brings proof from the need to remove the sciatic nerve before they could eat, as evidence that the prohibition to eat this nerve was in force already then, even though the Torah wouldn’t be given for hundreds of years later.

Tosafos poses a challenging question to this premise: Clearly, they were also shown the neck having been slaughtered in accordance with the laws of ritual slaughter even though everyone agrees that the implementation of those laws was only mandatory after the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. Nevertheless, although they weren’t ‘obligated’ to uphold that law they voluntarily abided by it. By the same virtue, perhaps although they weren’t obligated to observe the prohibition to refrain from eating the sciatic nerve, they chose to keep it anyway. How then can the Talmud prove they were indeed already mandated to refrain from eating it?

Years ago during my Kollel days I heard a most fascinating answer in the name of the Brisker Rav.

It begins with a true story.

There once was a woman in the town of Brody who brought a ritually slaughtered chicken to the local kloiz, the informal local study hall where great Torah scholars would quietly pore over tomes of Talmud with great devotion and effort for hours on end, to pose a halachic query regarding the kosher status of the chicken. 

There were two scholars there who would become legends; Rav Yechezkel Landau, popularly referred to by the name of his masterful collection of responsa, the Noda BeYehuda, who became a great halachist and community leader; and the Holy Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidus movement.

She presented it to the Noda BeYehuda who asked her a few questions and proceeded to declare it kosher. After the woman left happy and relieved, the Baal Shem commented to the great Rav that he knew as soon as she walked in that it was kosher as he had observed a רוח טהרה, a ‘spirit of purity’ emanating from the bird.

The Noda BeYehuda who was an outspoken antagonist of the Baal Shem’s mystical teachings responded sharply and asserting firmly that when it comes to adhering to the letter of the law in our obligations one must rely on hard facts and knowledge alone and one may not base decisions on mystical and heavenly devices or instincts.

With this principle the Brisker Rav suggested the following solution to the question of Tosafos. 

The Talmud states that Yosef’s aide merely displayed the freshly slaughtered neck to the brothers while the sciatic nerve he removed in their presence. Why didn’t he slaughter it as well in their presence? Why did he remove the nerve in front of them and not just present the nerve extracted leg?

The answer is that since the prohibition to refrain from eating the sciatic nerve is mandatory it must be clear that it was removed. The fact that they could observe a ‘spirit of purity’ hovering over it could not be relied on when dealing with obligatory law. However, regarding the laws of ritual slaughter which were to first go into effect after the giving of Torah at Sinai, and their observing its laws now was merely a voluntary choice, they could merely look at the slaughtered neck and rely on the evidence of the ‘spirit of purity’ that enveloped it!

Whether we are on the level of the sons of Yaakov or the Baal Shem Tov and able to sense the ‘spirit of purity’, there is a vital lesson to be derived from this very notion.

So often we get bogged down in the details of fulfilling properly our obligations but forget about the spiritual essence and objective in all that we do. 

A case in point: 

The brothers were so convinced of their righteous decision to dispatch with their younger brother and the halachic justifications of their argument in determining that Yosef was an existential threat to the legacy of Yaakov. Yet they allowed this absorption in the process to blind them to the instinctive kindness that should have guided them as well, that is equally part of our heritage. 

Wasn’t their very first expression of remorse when they admitted “we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us, and we paid no heed”? (מב כא)

There is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. 

Certainly, the Baal Shem Tov too was aware that when deciding whether an item is kosher or not we must base our decision on clinical information and knowledge. But one must never lose one’s sense of the ‘spirit of purity’ that must be ever present in all that we do. 

That is the legacy of the teaching of chassidus, to invest each act and moment not only with the proper conduct but emotion as well. 

Perhaps it is precisely this allusion to the holiday of Chanuka and this custom, and specifically not an obligation, to celebrate with a festive meal.

One who is infused with an emotional attachment and sensitivity to the greatness of the miracle of Chanuka and the deepened bond it created between our nation and our Father in Heaven, will instinctively burst out in festive eating and song, without any need for a command to do so, allowing the ‘spirit of purity’ that burns deeply within us to ignite the atmosphere with excitement.

Each night we sing:

לעת תכין מטבח מצר המנבח  

When You will have prepared the slaughter for the blaspheming foe

אז אגמור בשיר מזמור חנוכת המזבח  

Then I shall complete with a song of hymn the dedication Altar

These words that reflect on the ‘prepared slaughter’ clearly echo the words in our portion טבח והכן, slaughter and prepare.

The slaughtering we pine for is the reduction of our physical enemies and their life force, the evil inclination.

Perhaps the only way we can guarantee we will be successful in dispatching these ‘barking dogs’ is by living inspired, infused with a ‘spirit of purity’ that is evident in our enthusiasm in carrying out His will.

The Saintly Divrei Chaim points out that we refer here to the dedication of the entire Tabernacle and Temple as the חנוכת המזבח, ‘Dedication of the Altar’, and not more appropriately the חנוכת הבית, ‘Dedication of the House (Temple)’. 

The word מזבח we use for Altar is rooted in זבח, slaughter, alluding to the animal sacrifices we bring upon the Altar. Yet the Altar of Incense is also called a מזבח, even though no animals are slaughtered for it and only incense is placed upon it. The Zohar explains that the beautiful fragrance of the incense that burned on this Altar represents the exquisite ‘spirit of purity’ that figuratively will slaughter the Sitra Achra, our archenemy, the evil inclination, and all its minions.

It is for this מזבח, this symbolic slaughter; we quest for and dedicate our lives.

Only if we echo the message to live inspired, expressing the ‘spirit of purity’ in all that we engage in will we succeed in raising our families successfully and be able to invigorate our world with G-d’s presence.

May the ‘fragrant’ beauty of our exuberance finally bring the evil inclination to its defeat.

אז אגמור בשיר מזמור חנוכת המזבח  

Then I shall complete with a song of hymn the dedication Altar!

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