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Metaphors Liberate Us

In an age when the possibility of living in the land of Israel is no longer an abstract yearning, at a time when Jerusalem is rebuilt (with a soon to be active light rail system!), and after nearly 2000 years without the physical presence of a Temple nor the daily ministrations of priesthood and caste devoted to the Temple cult — metaphors must continue to liberate us. The power of metaphor was recognized by the Tannaim, the rabbinic sages who saw the redaction of the Mishna after the Temple was destroyed and after the Bar Kochba rebellion was crushed. It was understood by the Amoraim who followed them in their thriving diaspora yeshivot, and it was even plain to the Geonim and Rishonim that followed them. But in an age where certain zealots and their allies sense they might be able to grasp and physically realize Messianic visions, we must declare that the legacy of ritualized metaphor in our rabbinic heritage liberated us, and this is what I celebrate on Ḥanukah.

Imagine a Judaism in which no ḥanukiah is lit, and only the light of the menorah illuminates a central Temple’s Holy Sanctuary. Imagine a time when the performance of thrice daily service to God was focused only on the Temple offerings. Imagine when it would be absurd to think of the study of Temple offerings as a surrogate for an offering itself. Imagine when our vision of the Temple was of stone rather than comprised of some sort of fantastic light emanating directly from the Heavens. The Temple that we have in our imagination and ritual has been democratized, the result of beautiful and enlightened metaphor.

The Hasmoneans might be turning in their ossuaries, but our rabbis of yor were content with the knowledge that the Temple service would forevermore be non-localized, abstracted, and preserved in the heartfelt spiritual practices of its survivors. Ḥanukah can be seen as the first precedent for this abstraction of the Temple Service. Here we have the during the rededication of the Temple on Hanukah, a memorial for the important Sukkot fertility rituals and ritual offerings not provided. As Beith Shammai teaches in Masekhet Shabbat 21b, the Ḥanukiah is lit on the first night with eight lights, and on the second night with seven and so forth… in memory of the bull offerings that decreased day by day over the eight days of Sukkot. In other words, the ritual of lighting each day is performed as a surrogate offering in memory of the bull sacrifices not offered earlier those years when the Syrian Greeks controlled the Beit Mikdash.

The relationship between Sukkot and Ḥanukah is explained in II Maccabees chapter 10 verses 5-8. Here is the translation from the original Greek as found in the The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha (Augmented Third Edition):

It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the Festival of Booths [Sukkot], remembering how not long before, during the Festival of Booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm [lulavim], they offered hyms of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days each year.

The thirteen lost bull offerings of Sukkot might be remembered as 13 breaches in the Temple by the “Greek kings” in Mishna Middot 2:3.

…the lattice-work fence was ten tefaḥim high. And there were thirteen breaches where the kings of Greece breached. They went and repaired them again, and decreed thirteen prostrations according to [the breaches].

The number 13 here is very odd since there were only seven entrances to the Temple grounds where physical breaches were likely to occur (see Mishna Middot 1:4-5, and Talmud Yerushalmi Shekalim 17a/25b). I think it’s important to consider that any numbers used in an architectural context with the Temple also have a profound cosmological importance.

The memory of Sukkot permeates the laws of Ḥanukah and the juxtaposition of each eight day holiday’s mitzvot is significant. At the end of the dry season, the mitzvah of sukkot requires the erection of a temporary dwelling and stresses the importance of keeping an open sukkah open to the visit of guests. During the rainy season, the mitzvah of Ḥanukah requiring the ḥanukiah lit in a Bayit, a house (i.e., a permanent dwelling) and at the time that gleaners pass through the souq so they can see and perhaps beckoned by the beautiful light. It makes sense that the mitzvah of Ḥanukah cannot be performed in a temporary dwelling when the season is already too inhospitable to allow for it. The relationship between the holidays is clearly alluded to in the choice of measure for the maximum height by which a ḥanukiah can be lit — it is the maximum height a sukkah can be built.

These mysterious associative references are more easily understood if we accept that the symbols of the sukkah dwelling and the light of the ḥanukiah are equivalent to each other. Both represent the peace that will spread out over the entire earth, and perhaps all other worlds too, in a messianic age. In the language of Rashi, it is the light preserved for the righteous. In the language of the medieval piyyutim it is the sukkah of peace, each sukkah a mishkan, a tabernacle, the sḥaḥ (impermanent roof) of the sukkah likened to the luminous skin of the mysterious Leviathan, the cosmic creature that itself represents the primordial light from before creation. (Notably, the ḥanukiah is lit opposite from the mezuzah in its intended location: an open entrance. The ḥanukiah cannot be confused with the mezuzah, the prophylactic memory of the ward against the mashḥit, the mask of God wearing the hood of the executioner, slaughterer of the firstborn one terrible night in Egypt.)

It’s hard to imagine how significant the holiday of Sukkot was to our ancestors when so few of us are farmers, aware and conscious of the natural vivifying seasonal water cycle and how our food resources and economy depend on a good rainy season. Those offerings were important then, and the loss of the Temple and its rituals ensuring rain represented a catastrophic danger. One can imagine how important a surrogate holiday fixed at the time of the Temple’s restoration, critically at the time of the Brumalia following the Saturnalia on the Winter Solstice, Kislev 25. (Ḥanukah retains the celebratory atmosphere of the Simḥat Beit Hashoeva, the Water Drawing Festival, the most joyous day of the entire year as discussed just after the statement above regarding the breached made by the “Greek Kings” in Middot 2:5. The day was reconstituted after the destruction of the Temple as the holiday of Simḥat Torah, the celebration of the renewal of the annual Torah reading cycle.)

Metaphors liberate us. Sukkot offerings become light offerings. Temple offerings become daily prayers. I’ve just returned from my morning prayers during Shaḥarit, and the entire service is coded to represent the lost Temple Service and its lost Temple Cult. Even though I am not a Cohen, I am standing in for daily service performed by the Kohanim and I am time bound to it. The rabbis also taught that even though I cannot bring a sacrificial offering I can study the offerings brought and in this way the service can be sustained.

But post-Temple metaphors don’t stop there. For most of the history of rabbinic Judaism, the dominant vision of the restored temple in the messianic age was a temple of fire descending from heaven. A celestial Temple remains even when an earthly temple is destroyed. Here again is the echo of the primordial light reserved for the righteous until the end of days. What a danger that some would give up on this vision for a reconstituted Temple Cult and the loss of 2000 years of spiritual democracy.

Considering how Ḥanukah found renewed popularity 150 years ago as the celebration of ethnic national aspirations in Zionism, and seeing how religious nationalist zealots today pine for the construction of a physical third Temple (and implicit destruction of the beautiful shrine that currently preserves that sacred space), it’s time to celebrate, and take pride in our imagination — in our vision of a non-physical Temple rather than any physical, mortar and brick Temple, the aspiration of contemporary zealots.

We are liberated by our metaphors, our abstractions. We have innovated beyond the need to slaughter animals in our spiritual practice, nor to rely on a dedicated caste to preserve it. Just as our third temple is made of enlightening fire, burning brilliantly in hearts illuminating like warm homes in the middle of winter, we might also see that our people’s identity is composed of values and sensibilities, rather than nationalist dreams rooted in hard earth. Realizing civil and open societies that ensure those rights which foster our peace, plurality, and vibrant creative spirits is the realizing of a messianic age. Let us find freedom in our abstractions and communicate them with our wit and language and actions rather than build old bulwarks in mud and stone.

The Sanctuary by Edwin Forbes, 1876

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

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