I was thinking last week about the famous question of the Beit Yosef, the one that always seems to resurface at this time of year. I was thinking about it because it’s Chanukah, and also because my wife’s cousin, who compiled and annotated 100 answers to the question in his book נר למאה, passed away less than two weeks ago at close to 100 years old.
The question, most famously attributed to the Beit Yosef but posed for millennia by thoughtful schoolchildren everywhere, is this: why is Chanukah eight days and not seven? After all, the thinking goes, the first day was not a miracle – there should have been light on that day!
Perhaps the most popular answer to the Beit Yosef’s question – and the one I told my sixth graders yesterday when they took their place among millennia of schoolchildren before them – is that Chanukah celebrates the often-overlooked miracles all around us. To say that the first day was not also a miracle – to overlook the miracle of a sunset, to deny the miracle of a single step – is to take for granted the very existence that Hashem gives us every day. It is all a miracle. Our morning berachot make this clear as well – we thank Hashem for sight, for being able to stand, for securing dry land over water for the 10,000,000th day in a row – precisely to remind ourselves that it is all a miracle; that every moment, like every day of Chanukah, is a cause for celebration.
But that is not the answer I would like to share this year. In thinking about Chanukah this year, I was drawn to a comment in one of the Ner L’Meah’s other books, this one a collection of thoughts on the Gemara. In commenting on the Chanukah-related Gemara in Masechet Shabbat, the Ner L’Meah points out that the seventh and eighth days of Chanukah correspond in our Torah readings to Ephraim (Day #7) and Menashe (Day #8) – in other words, it is on those days that those two individuals brought their gifts to help inaugurate the Mishkan. Looking at who these two individuals are serves as a key to understanding why seven days of Chanukah would not be enough.
A look at Rashi on Parshiot Miketz and Vayigash, last week and this week’s Torah readings, tells us a lot about who these two great individuals, Ephraim (Day #7) and Menashe (Day #8), truly were.
Epraim was the Talmid Muvhak – the prime disciple – of Yaakov:
ויאמר ליוסף – אחד מן המגידים, והרי זה מקרא קצר. ויש אומרים אפרים היה רגיל לפני יעקב בתלמוד, וכשחלה יעקב בארץ גושן, הלך אפרים אצל אביו למצרים והגיד לו
In this, Ephraim was the representative of perfection – steeped in Torah study and a fine exemplar of proper middot, he exemplified all that could be expected of him. What could be better?
והם לא ידעו כי שומע יוסף – מבין לשונם ובפניו היו מדברים כן
כי המליץ בינותם – כי כשהיו מדברים עמו היה המליץ ביניהם, היודע לשון עברי ולשון מצרי, והיה מליץ דבריהם ליוסף ודברי יוסף להם, לכך היו סבורים שאין יוסף מכיר בלשון עברי:
המליץ – זה מנשה
When Yosef needed an interpreter to carry on the charade that he, as an “Egyptian,” did not understand his Jewish brothers, it was Menashe who Yosef called upon to serve as the “interpreter” between himself and his brothers. Menashe, like his brother Ephraim, was steeped in Torah learning, but he also understood Egyptian culture well enough to be comfortably conversant in Egyptian. Egypt did not change him. He was, first and last, a Jew. But he was comfortable enough with the culture surrounding him that he could comfortably use that culture – and positively contribute to it. Menashe was perfect – he scored a 100%. Ephraim, however, scored extra credit.
As our Ushpizin for the 7th Day, Menashe is the perfect example of perfection. The number Seven always represents perfection – Shabbat, the Shemittah year, the Yovel cycle, the days of Pesach. But every now and then we get a glimpse beyond perfection at the world that we can create by taking the perfection that is given to us and adding to it. The longest week of a person’s life is the first one – an eight-day week, the one chance in his life that a person can experience a “full week” – perfection and beyond – before spending the rest of his life trying to achieve that which he was given a taste of for free as his life began. Succot also allows us a fleeting chance at the creativity which comes of improving perfection – Simchat Torah – after seven days of proscription. (It is not surprising, then, that Simchat Torah is so much a holiday of our own invention – that’s what Eight is all about.)
Chanukah likewise offers us a glimpse beyond the perfection brought on by the first seven days by adding to that perfection with an eighth day of our own. And how appropriate this extra day, sponsored as it is by Menashe, is for Chanukah! Because the particular Beyond of Menashe, careful but deliberate integration into the society around us, is so much at the heart of the Chanukah story. To pretend that the moral of Chanukah is simply to withdraw ourselves from any aspect of Hellenized Greek culture is naive – we all value Torah presented in a visually attractive format and prefer our Jewish music not to sound like trash. Judaism values the body, just as the Greek culture does – exercise is commanded, a proper diet is expected. Greek culture is in all of us – and Menashe tells us that that is OK, as long as it is used correctly. Menashe’s rules are that you are the master of that culture, not the other way around; that your use of that culture is productive and creative, not self-destructive or self-corrosive; and that, first and last, you are a Jew who is using that culture, not fundamentally a member of that culture who happens to be Jewish.
Adding the Eighth day, Beit Yosef, reminds us that as much as we respect Ephraim for the perfection he has achieved through his Torah learning, ultimately perfection is not enough. We are not a religion of Ephraims. We are a religion who becomes Ephraim first, and then acts upon the Torah we have learned in that process to contribute functionally to the society around us. We are, at our core, an eight-day religion – a religion of Menashe.
One disclaimer: While I have borrowed the Ner L’Meah’s suggestion that Menashe and Ephraim represent, respectively, the seventh and eighth days of Chanukah, I have differed from him in my understanding of the implications of this information. The Ner L’Meah feels that Menashe is less holy, on account of his immersion into the surrounding Egyptian culture, while Ephraim is more holy because of his Torah-only approach. I have taken the opposite view, with no disrespect whatsoever meant to my wife’s late cousin, HaRav Yerachmiel Zeltzer, Zecher Tzaddik V’Kadosh L’vracha, an extraordinary Torah giant whose heels I do not reach in learning.