Kislev 2019 – We Are Made of Thanks: Hanukkah and Thanksgiving

 

 

What is Hanukkah About?

 

1. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b

 

The Gemara asks: What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Taanit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

 

What is Gratitude?

2. Devarim 9:1-5

 

 

Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and more populous than you: great cities with walls sky-high; 2 a people great and tall, the Anakites, of whom you have knowledge; for you have heard it said, “Who can stand up to the children of Anak?” 3 Know then this day that none other than the Lord your God is crossing at your head, a devouring fire; it is He who will wipe them out. He will subdue them before you, that you may quickly dispossess and destroy them, as the Lord promised you. 4 And when the Lord your God has thrust them from your path, say not to yourselves, “The Lord has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues”; it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. 5 It is not because of your virtues and your rectitude that you will be able to possess their country; but it is because of their wickedness that the Lord your God is dispossessing those nations before you, and in order to fulfill the oath that the Lord made to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

 

3. Devarim 8:7-20

 

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; 9 a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. 10 When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you. 11 Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today.

12 When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, 13 and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, 14 beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end— 17 and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” 18 Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case. 19 If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish; 20 like the nations that the Lord will cause to perish before you, so shall you perish—because you did not heed the Lord your God.

 

Berakhot

 

4. Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 35a-b

 

The fundamental obligation to recite a blessing over food is founded on reason: One is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without a blessing.

The Sages taught in a Tosefta: One is forbidden to derive benefit from this world, which is the property of God, without reciting a blessing beforehand. And anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he is guilty of misappropriation of a consecrated object… Similarly, Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: One who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he enjoyed objects consecrated to the heavens, as it is stated: “The earth and all it contains is the Lord’s, the world and all those who live in it” (Psalms 24:1).

Rabbi Levi raised a contradiction: It is written: “The earth and all it contains is the Lord’s,” and it is written elsewhere: “The heavens are the Lord’s and the earth He has given over to mankind” (Psalms 115:16). There is clearly a contradiction with regard to whom the earth belongs. He himself resolves the contradiction: This is not difficult. Here, the verse that says that the earth is the Lord’s refers to the situation before a blessing is recited, and here, where it says that He gave the earth to mankind refers to after a blessing is recited.

 

Creation and the Mitsvot

 

5. Rav Saadiah Gaon, Emunot Vede’ot I:4

 

They might ask, based on what cause did the creator create everything that exists?

There are three answers:

  1. We could say that God created without cause, and even so it was not wasteful, because a person is only wasteful when they do something without cause if they don’t know what value it has, and that’s not relevant when it comes to the creator.
  2. God wanted to thus reveal his wisdom and display it…
  3. God wanted to give to the creations, by virtue of his commanding them and their obeying him…

 

6. Rav Saadiah Gaon, Emunot Vede’ot III:1

 

Reason obligates a person to respond gratefully to anyone who gives good to them, with a good if the giver needs it, or with thanks if they need nothing. Since this is one of the originary obligations of reason, it is impossible that God would abandon it in regard to himself. Therefore, it is necessary that God would command his creatures to serve him and praise him for creating them

We will perform those we were commanded to desire, and those we were warned to avoid, from the perspective of obedience, and in this second sense they are included within the first part. 

 

Gratitude for What? and to Whom?

 

7. Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim Mizeh §62

 

Rav Froman’s son recounted:

For several years I taught Likkutei Moharan to secular students. One of the usual students said that came and loved learning, despite being a total atheist and not believing in God at all. Once, when we learned a lot about giving thanks and the importance of gratitude, she was really inspired by the class and came at the end to tell me that she felt a very deep sense of gratitude for everything in her life. I asked her, “If you don’t believe in God, then to whom are you giving thanks?” She said that this was a really good question, and she would have to think about it.

That evening, when I got home, I told my father what happened in the class, proud of what I had said and that she would soon repent…

My father said to me, “I don’t think you helped her spiritually at all. Her sense of gratitude, without any consciousness of to whom she was grateful, could very possibly have been much greater than your religious gratitude, because you have specific answers and exact explanations regarding to whom you give thanks.”

Shiur: Tammuz 2019 – Do You Lie About God? The Meaning of Faith and Torah in a Time of Destruction

 

Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69b:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the Sages of those generations called the members of the Great Assembly? It is because they returned the crown of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to its former glory. How so? Moses came and said in his prayer: “The great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10:17). Jeremiah the prophet came and said: Gentiles, i.e., the minions of Nebuchadnezzar, are carousing in His sanctuary; where is His awesomeness? Therefore, he did not say awesome in his prayer: “The great God, the mighty Lord of Hosts, is His name” (Jeremiah 32:18). Daniel came and said: Gentiles are enslaving His children; where is His might? Therefore he did not say mighty in his prayer: “The great and awesome God” (Daniel 9:4).

The members of the Great Assembly came and said: On the contrary, this is the might of His might, i.e., this is the fullest expression of it, that He conquers His inclination in that He exercises patience toward the wicked. And these acts also express His awesomeness: Were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, how could one people, i.e., the Jewish people, who are alone and hated by the gentile nations, survive among the nations?

The Gemara asks: And the Rabbis, i.e., Jeremiah and Daniel, how could they do this and uproot an ordinance instituted by Moses, the greatest teacher, who instituted the mention of these attributes in prayer? Rabbi Elazar said: They did so because they knew of the Holy One Blessed be He, that He is truthful. Consequently, they did not speak falsely about Him.

 

Additional sources:

Devarim 8:7-10

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.

 

Franz Rosenzweig, “The New Thinking,” 131 – What makes The Star Jewish?

I have received the new thinking in these old words so, in them, have I given it back and passed it on. For a Christian, as I know, words of the New Testament would have come to his lips in­stead of my words, [while] for a pagan, I think, not words from his sa­cred books [would have come to his lips]—for their ascent leads away from the original language of mankind, not to it, like the earthly path of revelation—but perhaps [words] wholly his own. But to me, these [came]. And yet this is, to be sure, a Jewish book: not one that deals with “Jewish things,” for then the books of the Protestant Old Testament scholar would be Jewish books; but rather one for which, to say what it has to say, especially the new thing it has to say, the old Jewish words come. Like things in general, Jewish things have always passed away; yet Jewish words, even when old, share the eternal youth of the word, and if the world is opened up to them, they will renew the world.

 

Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metsia 59b

And this is known as the oven of akhnai. The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of akhnai, a snake, in this context? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: It is characterized in that manner due to the fact that the Rabbis surrounded it with their statements like this snake, which often forms a coil when at rest, and deemed it impure. The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.

After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

 

Exodus 23:2

You shall neither side with the majority to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the majority.

לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת.

 

Avot 4:1

Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city” (Proverbs 16:3).

 

 

Destruction and Centralization – Monopolizing the Worship Market

 

I want to take a moment to explore Deuteronomy 12:1-7. In doing so, however, I want to make an analogy to the economics of contemporary technology. This is part of a larger goal of “hitting refresh” on the metaphors and analogies we use to talk about God and Judaism. Most of our analogies stretch back aeons and now lack the everyday sensibility that makes metaphors and analogies helpful. The best example of this is traditional comparison of God to a king, when few, if any, people living today have experienced living under a real king. Finding new ways of talking about God and Judaism enables us to better understand God and Judaism, as well as integrating them more into our everyday lived experience. However, analogies and metaphors don’t just convey information, they also shape it. Changing the way we speak about God and Judaism also changes how we think about them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it offers up exciting possibilities, but it is something we should do with our eyes open. I want to explore some of these possibilities in this post on Deuteronomy 12:1-7, and at least one more on a different topic.

Deuteronomy 12 discusses the laws of centralization and sacrifice that the Israelites must observe after they enter the land of Canaan. These laws open not with Israelite cultic worship, however, but with how they should destroy the physical sites of worship that they find in the land, only thereafter going on to the topic of centralization

These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that the Lord, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth. You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.

Do not worship the Lord your God in like manner, but look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions, your votive and freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God, happy in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:1-7)

These two paragraphs are generally understood as two contrasting ideas; “here’s how you treat bad worship, here’s how you treat good worship.” The religions of the natives are bad and must be destroyed, while the good religion of the Israelites is meant to be performed at a single location. In what follows I would like to propose that these two paragraphs are not meant to be contrasting ideas but complementary ones, both part of securing the Israelites involvement in the proper form of religious activity.

To get to that idea, I want to look at a two instances from the recent history of the technology market. The first is the role the iPhone played in the competition between Verizon and AT&T in the United States cell phone market.

Back in 2006 Apple sought to release the original iPhone on Verizon; the leading carrier in the U.S., though, was wary of Apple’s demands that there be no Verizon branding, no Verizon control of the user experience, and no Verizon relationship with iPhone users beyond managing their data plan. Therefore, Apple launched the iPhone on the second-place carrier (AT&T née Cingular); AT&T accepted Apple’s demands in full with the hope that Apple’s famously loyal customers would see the iPhone as a reason to switch.

That, of course, is exactly what happened: in the five years following the iPhone launch, AT&T went from trailing Verizon by $400 million in wireless revenue to leading by $700 million; that’s a $1.1 billion switch thanks in large part to Apple loyalists’ willingness to switch carriers to get an iPhone. The effect was even greater on smaller carriers, which had no choice but to accede to Apple’s increasingly demanding terms: not only would Apple own the customers, but carriers had to agree to significant marketing outlays and guaranteed sales to carry the iPhone(Ben Thompson, “Apple Should Buy Netflix”)

Before the iPhone was released, Verizon was the unquestioned leader in the United States, seemingly because of their better service and plans, and they felt very secure in that position. What they did not count on was the power and influence of the physical devices that customers used to access their services. It turned out that the physical devices had the power to be a determining factor. Once the iPhone was introduced, people flocked to it, and that meant flocking to the only cell phone service to which iPhones gave access.

Something similar happened with the introduction of the Windows operation system on IBM computers, before the OS market was really even getting off the ground.

IBM spun up a separate team in Florida to put together something they could sell IT departments. Pressed for time, the Florida team put together a minicomputer using mostly off-the shelf components; IBM’s RISC processors and the OS they had under development were technically superior, but Intel had a CISC processor for sale immediately, and a new company called Microsoft said their OS – DOS – could be ready in six months. For the sake of expediency, IBM decided to go with Intel and Microsoft.

The rest, as they say, is history. The demand from corporations for IBM PCs was overwhelming, and DOS – and applications written for it – became entrenched. By the time the Mac appeared in 1984, the die had long since been cast. Ultimately, it would take Microsoft a decade to approach the Mac’s ease-of-use, but Windows’ DOS underpinnings and associated application library meant the Microsoft position was secure regardless. (Ben Thompson, “The Truth about Windows versus the Mac”)

Demand for the IBM personal computer was high, and it came preloaded with Windows. By virtue of that connection between the physical device and the operating system, Microsoft dominated the market for years, without Apple ever really having a chance. This is exactly the same as what happened with the iPhone, except that the iPhone was being introduced into  preexisting market while the IBM personal computer was basically creating a new one. In this new market, one physical device dominated, and therefore the operating system connected to this device also dominated.

The common idea in both of these examples is that physical objects, like iPhones or personal computers, determine the market, and that when these physical devices are connected to other things, like cell phone plans or operating systems, they give the market to those things. Returning to Deuteronomy 12:1-7, I would like to propose that we should see the laws recorded there as working off this idea in an attempt to shape the Israelites’ religious practice. Instead of iPhones and personal computers, the physical objects here are the places and paraphernalia of worship. When the Israelites destroy any place where the Canaanites worshipped, when they destroy the altars and pillars and trees that the Canaanites used in their worship, they are limiting the physical objects available to them in their worship. If the Canaanite objects are available, the Israelites may flock to them, and thus to the deities connected to those objects. Getting rid of those objects means that the Israelites have no choice but to worship with objects connected to God. Similarly, when God says they have to worship only at one central location, this means that the nature of worship in this one, easily controlled, environment, shapes the Israelites’ religious experience. These are not contrasting laws about how to treat good and bad religion but complementary laws ensuring God’s monopoly in the worship market.

As I said above, however, this new analogy requires some new understandings. This is all based on the idea that there is such a thing as a worship market, that the Israelites will necessarily participate in worship and religion, with the only question being with what physical objects and to which god(s). This assumptions is, I think, fairly well born out by the existence of religion throughout human societies across history. Moreover, it seems fairly evident from Tanakh. The book of Judges is full of the Israelites straying after foreign gods, seemingly for no other reason than the fact that they were there. Once we take that reality as a given, it makes sense that God would attempt to limit the available objects and sites of foreign worship, so as to manage and direct that basic religious impulse.

Perhaps more dramatically, this analogy allows us to move away from seeing Deuteronomy 12:1-7 as being about “bad” religion versus “good” religion. The reason that the Canaanite sites of worship must be destroyed is not because they are “bad” but simply because they are competition. This isn’t to say that they’re “good,” but simply to reevaluate the way we think about issues of idolatry and foreign worship. It is possible that the problem with worshipping gods other than God is less that they don’t exist and that the worship is false and more that we are supposed to be dedicated to God specifically. What other nations do is their own business (which, again, doesn’t make them “right” or “good,” just not our concern). In fact, something like this seems to be expressed in the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, where it is said that the heavenly bodies were given to the nations to worship (4:19) (see my piece on this understanding of idolatry here).

In conclusion, reimagining the laws of destruction and centralization in Deuteronomy 12 as attempts to shape and control a worship market highlights the idea that there is a “demand” for religion and the importance of “customer loyalty.” More importantly, I hope that it makes this passage more understandable to the average reader, and that it makes the ideas therein make more sense and more familiar to them. In another post, I want to look at another new analogy, exploring the connection between the commandments and the reasons for the commandments in light of the connection between hardware and software.