With Chanukah around the corner, the time has come to add more drops of ink (or digital bytes) to a question that has bothered the Torah world for the past 200 years. Examine the Mishnayos closely and you may notice a strange conundrum. While Rebbi, the redactor of the Mishnayos, discusses every aspect of Jewish life in detail, he almost totally ignores Chanukah! Unlike Purim, which gets Messeches Megillah all to itself, Chanukah is mentioned a few times, but always incidental to other laws, for example in Bava Kama (6:6) in the context of damage laws: “If a storekeeper placed his candle outside, the storekeeper is liable [if it burnt merchandise there]; Rabbi Yehuda says, ‘With a Chanukah candle he is exempt.’”
The Rambam’s (Chanukah 3:12) description of the Chanukah lights as “as an extremely beloved mitzvah” makes this seeming omission all the more glaring.
Elementary, My Dear Watson
There are many ways to answer this enigma, ranging from the elementary, to the daring and controversial.
The simplest approach is that Rebbi actually did write a Maseches Chanukah. As Rav Avrohom of Vilna writes in the name of his father the Gra (intr. to Medrash Aggada Bereishis), “The seven minor messechtos originally included some others, besides those which we still have, namely, Maseches Tefi llin, Maseches Megillah, and Maseches Mezuzah.” With this answer, the question never gets off the ground.
Another simple answer is the suggestion of Sefer Ha’Eshel that the halachos of Chanukah were so well known that it was simply superfl uous to write them down. In support of this idea, he cites the Rambam (Perush Hamishnayos Menachos 4:1) who explains why the Mishnah never devoted much space to extremely major laws such as tzitzis, tefillin, and mezuzah. This was because “these things were well known at the time the Mishnah was composed, and they were matters usual and publicized among the public and individuals, their knowledge hidden from no one. Therefore, [Rebbi] felt that it was unnecessary to speak of them.” The Chasam Sofer in his chiddushim on shas also gives this answer.
The same could apply to Chanukah, whose halachos are certainly far simpler than the complicated, numerous rules of tefillin and mezuzah.
Another simple argument is that there was little need for Rebbi to write a Maseches Chanukah, since its history and laws were already recorded in Megillas Taanis, a written work that preceded Rebbi’s Mishnah. However, this answer is not all that obvious since some authorities, including the Maharitz Chiyus and the Radal, claim that the non-Aramaic Hebrew text of Megillas Taanis [which includes most of the Chanukah story and laws] was written after Rebbi’s time.
Other answers to our Chanukah mystery are more complicated.
A Controversial Answer
The best-known and most controversial explanation for Rebbi devoting so little space to Chanukah is that cited in the name of the Chasam Sofer. As his grandson, Rav Avrohom Shmuel Binyomin Sofer writes in his biographical Chut Hameshulash (page 50a), “he used to say that the miracle of Chanukah is not mentioned in the Mishnah at all, because Rabeinu Hakodesh, the composer of the Mishnah, was from the family of Dovid, while the miracle of Chanukah was performed by the Chashmonaim who seized kingship and were not from the seed of Dovid. This was disagreeable to Rabeinu Hakodesh and when he wrote the Mishnah through Divine Inspiration, he omitted the miracle from his work.”
The concept of it being wrong for the Chashmonaim to set up a kingdom is based on the opinion of the Ramban (Bereishis 49:10). He writes that setting up non- Dovidic kingdoms runs counter to Yaakov’s final blessing to Yehuda:
“In my opinion, the kings of other tribes who ruled over Yisroel after Dovid transgressed the will of their father [Yaakov who had said, ‘The scepter shall not be removed from Yehuda’]… This was the punishment of the Chashmonaim who ruled during the second Temple, as they were chassidei elyon and if not for them, the Torah and mitzvos would have been forgotten from Yisroel… In the end they were punished as Chazal say (Bava Basra 3a), ‘Whoever says he is from the house of Chashmonai is a slave,’ as they were all cut off due to this sin… Their punishment was measure for measure; the Holy One gave rule to their slaves [Herod] over them, and they cut them off.”
A major objection to this explanation is that it seems strange to proscribe personal motives to Rebbi’s decision making regarding which material to include in the Mishnah and which to leave out. Regarding this objection, the Mahari’atz is (Orach Chaim 78) quick to point out that the intent is not to say that Rebbi, who never did the slightest thing shelo leshem Shomayim, acted out of personal motives; rather, his action was guided by the principle that it is the Torah way for a talmid chochom to be concerned about his family’s honor.
In support of this contention, the Birkas Avrohom cites another case where Rebbi wrote Mishnayos in accordance with his family’s honor. At the end of Horayos, the Gemara reports how, after Raban Gamliel decided that certain actions of Rabbi Meir implied disrespect for his position as nasi of Klal Yisroel, he decreed that henceforth, anyone quoting halachos of Rabbi Meir should not mention his name. Instead, they should cite the halacha in the name of acherim, “others.”
We find that Rebbi complied with his father’s decree in the Mishnayos, often referring to Rabbi Meir as Acherim. This was despite the fact that Rebbi personally had the greatest reverence for Rabbi Meir, stating in Eiruvin (13b) that he was only greater than his colleagues were because he had seen Rabbi Meir’s back, and had he seen his face he would have been even greater.
Others, however, feel that once Rav Gamliel decreed this, Rebbi could not change it, this is no proof that he did if for his personal family honor. Another objection to the grandson of the Chassam Sofer’s citation is the fact that the Chasam Sofer himself says the other reason, as mentioned earlier. Rav Tzadok Hakohen in “Pri Tzakkid” makes a fascinating observation in regards to Kohanim.
They are all descendants of shevet Yehuda from Elisheva, the wife of Aaron HaKohein. According to the Yerushalmi, Rebbi was also a descendant of the females of shevet Yehuda, not the males, so in essence he had the same lineage the kohanim had regarding malchus beis Dovid.
The Historical Approach
Some seforim take a historical angle to answer the question of why Chanukah appears rarely in the Mishnayos.
The Eidus BiYehosef (of Mahari ben Samon, volume II chapter 15) explains that Rebbi felt that it would be politically hazardous to write a messechta that commemorates the Jewish revolt against a host country. After, all, it was not all that long since the unsuccessful Bar Kochva revolt against Rome that ended in the massacre at Beitar.
He rallies support for his position from a passage of the Yerushalmi (Sukkah chapter 5):
“In the days of the wicked Terugainas, he once had a son on Tisha B’Av and the [Jews] fasted. His daughter died on Cha nukah and they lit candles. He wife sent him a message, complaining, ‘While you are conquering the barbarians, you would better to come and conquer the Jews who have rebelled against you… He surrounded them with legions and killed them… and their blood flowed in the sea until Cyprus. At that time, the strength of Yisroel was cut off and it will not return until the arrival of the son of Dovid.”
Extrapolating from this passage, the Eidus BiYehosef argues that mentioning Chanukah in the Mishnah would have been worse because, “Writing the laws of Chanukah has more permanence than lighting candles. Jews light in their homes for a short time, eight days in the year for a half hour, and even then, they have the alternative of lighting indoors if there is a risk of danger. Writing, on the other hand, lasts forever and disseminates through the world through people who copy all they want… Therefore, Rebbi omitted writing the laws of Chanukah.”
It is worthwhile noting that Chazal were initially reluctant to write Megillas Esther for exactly the same reason. When Esther asked them for permission to write the Megillah as a commemoration for all generations they replied (Megillah 7a), “You are arousing envy against us among the nations.” Rashi explains, “The nations will say that we are happy to mention their downfall.” Now, regarding writing the Megillah, Esther was able to reply to them,
“I am already written in the history of the kings of Madai and Paras,” an argument that does not apply to writing down the story of Chanukah.
An Angelic Explanation
Other answers to this question hinge upon which parts of the Torah Rebbi was permitted to commit to writing and which parts he was not.
The Birkas Avrohom (Kovetz Tzefunos choveres 6) cites a manuscript version of the Maggid Meisharim, the sefer in which the Beis Yosef recorded information he received from a heavenly Maggid. Regarding Chanukah, the Maggid told him that Rebbi was not allowed to put it in writing:
“Concerning the Mishnah that was given completely at Har Sinai (Medrash Zuta Kohelles 5:5), you should know that the whole Torah was explained from Moshe, etc. Maseches Megillah too was said at Sinai, because the Holy One showed Moshe every generation and its various leaders, and this included what each one would decree. Regarding Chanukah, however, even though the Holy One showed him [its laws] at Sinai, it was not permitted to be included in the Mishnah since it happened after chazon (prophecy) was sealed.”
In other words, Rebbi could only write about halachos that had a prior Scriptural and prophetic connection.
The great nineteenth century gaon, Rav Alexander Moshe Lapidos says precisely the same answer in different words:
“Rabeinu Hakadosh only permitted [writing] something that was an explanation of the written Torah and had a basis in the script, or that was a fence, such as Hallel and blessings, Eiruvin, washing hands, Shabbos candles and Megillah [eradicating Amalek] whereas Chanukah that is not a commentary and has no basis in Script, and is not a fence, was only recorded in hidden scrolls… and afterwards it was permitted to publicize it in writing in the Talmud.” Seforim write that Chanukah is essentially a celebration of the Torah Shebe’al Peh, commemorating our victory over the Greeks and Misyavnim who had made a point of fi ghting against the Oral Law. To express their contempt to the concept of a living Torah, they ordered the Jews to write on the horn of the ox, “We have no portion in the Torah of Yisroel.” Thus, Rebbi’s omission of Chanukah, far from being negative, chas veshalom, is indicative of the fact that Chanukah is Torah Shebe’al Peh in its purest form.
(Sources found in Otzar Hachochmah.)