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Thinking Torah

By Rav Alex Israel –


Channukat HaMizbeach

and The Dedication of the Altar



Which item in the Temple is most often associated with Channuka? - The Menorah of course!


Well, in fact, the term "Channuka" is associated with a different vessel of the Beit Mikdash: The Temple altar - the Mizbeach. As we sing in "Maoz Tzur", it is the "Channukat HaMizbeach", the "dedication" of the ritual altar in the Beit Hamikdash that forms the centerpiece of Channuka.


The altar and its dedication is the focus of our Torah Reading during Channuka. Why is that? 




The Book of Maccabees I ch.1 depicts the events in the time of Channuka, under the Greek king, Antiochus:


21 And after Antiochus had ravaged Egypt in the hundred and forty-third year, he returned and went up against Israel. 22 And he went up to Jerusalem with a great multitude. 23 And he proudly entered into the sanctuary, and took away the golden altar, and the candlestick of light, and all the vessels thereof, and the table of proposition, and the pouring vessels, and the vials, and the little mortars of gold, and the veil, and the crowns, and the golden ornament that was before the temple: and he broke them all in pieces. 24 And he took the silver and gold, and the precious vessels: and he took the hidden treasures which he found: and when he had taken all away he departed into his own country. 25 And he made a great slaughter of men ….


Antiochus desecrates the Temple, and loots its gold. However, two years later, religious persections accelerate:


57 On the fifteenth day of the month Kislev, in the hundred and forty-fifth year king Antiochus set up the abominable idol of desolation upon the altar of God…

62 And on the five and twentieth day of the month they sacrificed upon the altar of the idol that was over against the altar of God.


In other words, a pagan altar is erected on the old altar of God in the Temple, and specifically on the 25th of Kislev, that altar is desecrated with pagan sacrifices. This is part of a wider set of decrees:


63 Now the women that circumcised their children, were slain according to the commandment of king Antiochus. 64 And they hanged the children about their necks in all their houses: and those that had circumcised them, they put to death. 65 And many of the people of Israel determined with themselves, that they would not eat unclean things: and they chose rather to die than to be defiled with unclean meats. 66 And they would not break the holy law of God, and they were put to death.




Tradition has it that Channuka is the day in which Jerusalem was vanquished by Yehuda Hamacabee's soldiers and that "they rested on the 25th" of Kislev. The Book of the Macabees ch.4 suggests a different story. It suggests that the Macabee rebels WAITED specifically until the 25th of Kislev to dedicate the Temple altar.


Here is how the Book of Macabees describes the entry of the Maccabean army into the Temple:


36 Judas and his brothers said, Now that our enemies have been defeated, let's go to Jerusalem to purify the Temple and rededicate it. 37 So the whole army was assembled and went up to Mount Zion. 38 There they found the Temple abandoned, the altar profaned, the gates burned down, the courtyards grown up in a forest of weeds, and the priests' rooms torn down. 39 In their sorrow, they tore their clothes, cried loudly, threw ashes on their heads, 40 and fell face down on the ground. When the signal was given on the trumpets, everyone cried out to the Lord.





They encounter an upsetting scene of neglect and desecration. The holy Mizbeach/altar had been desecrated and needed urgent renovation. They did not know what to do with the stones. On the one hand the stones were impure; on the other hand they still bore the sanctity of the original Temple!





41 Then Judas ordered some of his soldiers to attack the men in the fort, while he purified the Temple.42 He chose some priests who were qualified and who were devoted to the Law. 43 They purified the Temple and took the stones that had been defiled and put them in an unclean place. 44 They discussed what should be done with the altar of burnt offerings, which had been desecrated 45 by the Gentiles, and decided to tear it down, so that it would not stand there as a monument to their shame. So they tore down the altar 46 and put the stones in a suitable place on the Temple hill, where they were to be kept until a prophet should appear and decide what to do with them. 




This is an interesting proof that at these times, there were no prophets any more! In refurbishing the Temple, they follow Torah law strictly, as they renovate the altar and the menorah (lampstand). It would appear that immediately they begin the daily incense (ketoret) and shewbread (lehem haPanim):


47 Then they took uncut stones, as the Law of Moses required, and built a new altar like the old one. 48 They repaired the Temple, inside and out, and dedicated its courtyards. 49 They made new utensils for worship and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table for the bread into the Temple.50 They burned incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lampstand, and there was light in the Temple! 51 They placed the loaves of bread on the table, hung the curtains, and completed all the work.


But when do they start the daily sacrifices? When do they dedicate the altar? 


52-54 The twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev, in the year 148 was the anniversary of the day the Gentiles had desecrated the altar. On that day a sacrifice was offered on the new altar in accordance with the Law of Moses. The new altar was dedicated and hymns were sung to the accompaniment of harps, lutes, and cymbals. 55 All the people bowed down with their faces to the ground and worshiped and praised the Lord for giving them victory. 56 For eight days they celebrated the rededication of the altar. With great joy they brought burnt offerings and offered fellowship offerings and thank offerings.




So, why do they celebrate for EIGHT days? And why do they wait until the 25th of Kislev? It seems that they had time to already start lighting the menorah and to bake bread for the shulkhan. Is it because, as tradition tells us, theer was no pure oil? That doesn't sound right. They have renovated and purified other segments of the Temple! Why did they wait for the 25th of Kislev?


As for the Eight days, it is possible that they were copying Moses and also Solomon:


With the Mishkan, (Vayikra ch.9) :


On the eighth day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron, “Take a bull calf for your sin offering a a ram for your burnt offering...for today the Lord will appear to you.’ ...Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown. 


And with Solomon the EIGHT day celebration of the Temple inauguration coincides and dovetails with with Sukkot:


So Solomon observed the festival at that time for seven days, and all Israel with him—a vast assembly, people from Lebo Hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. On the eighth day they held an assembly, for they had celebrated the dedication of the altar for seven days and the festival (Sukkot) for seven days more. (Div. Hayamim II ch.7)


Possibly they were following protocol to dedicate the Temple with an 8 day festival. Some suppose that the Maccabees were celebrating the festival of Sukkot late for that year. 




But the idea of the twenty fifth is more specific. It is quite clear that the Greeks deliberately desecrated the altar on the 25th Kislev, and it seems that the Macabees waited for that date, as if to reverse and eradicate the religious scar upon that date. But what is so auspicious about the 25th of Kislev? The Book of Haggai gives us a clue:



"Take note from this day forward, from the 24th day of the ninth month (Kislev), from the day that the foundation was laid for the Lord's House - take note..." Haggai 2:18


From this verse we see a prophecy  of the building of the second Temple dated to Kislev 24. On that selfsame day, Haggai says:


Now give careful thought to this from this day on —consider how things were before one stone was laid on another in the Lord’s temple (2:15)


So the 24th is THE DAY OF THE TEMPLE FOUNDATION but it is BEFORE ONE STONE WAS LAID UPON THE OTHER. In other words, the building starts on the 25th! The 25th is the Temple anniversary, and it seems evident that in 2nd Temple times, the 25th of Kislev was the anniversary of the founding of the Temple, and it was a date which was publically marked. The is the reason that the Greeks chose to use that day to offer pagan idols on the altar. On the selfsame day, the altar was re-dedicated by the Maccabees.






The dedication ceremony of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is the Torah Reading for Channukah. It comes from the book of Numbers/Bamidbar. Depicted there as an event orchestrated by tribal leaders. It is also called "Channukat HAmizbeach" (Bamidbar 7:10) - the dedication of the altar! The "princes" or Nesiim each come in turn to dedicate God's house. This is interesting. For 12 days, a 12 day ceremony, a dedication rite, is inacted by the civil leadership; not the towering leadership figures , prophets and priests, Moses and Aharon, but the people's representatives find their way to center stage.


Maybe the reason that we choose to read this portion on Channuka is precisely the notion of "the people" coming to dedicate the Mishkan - it reflects the popular upprising of the Maccabees. Despite the fact that the Hasmonean rebels were Kohanim (priests), they led what was essentially a people's revolt.  Bamidbar is the book that focuses upon the nation.


Interestingly, the reading from Bamidbar ends with two details. First, the closing line tells of God's voice emanating from the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Kodoshim), as if to say tha the nation finds the way of connecting with God's tangible Presence through the Temple dedication, the Chanukkat Hamizbeach (see Bamidbar 7:84.) 


Second, it talks about kindling the Menorah:


“Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.” (8:1-3)


The altar and the menorah are connected!


See the file attached (pdf) for a more detailed shiur!


Happy lighting!


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