A tale of two Yossis

A tale of two Yossis

Parshat Miketz, Genesis 41;1-44;17

One of the most remarkable features of the laws of Chanukah is their focus on the home. The Talmud (Shabbat 21a) formulates the core obligation of Chanukah as being a light kindled for each person and their household, and then posits that a more ideal fulfilment of the precept would call for a candle lit for each member of the household. In ancient times, and increasingly in modern Israel, the menorah was lit on the outside of the doorway, parallel to the mezuzah, a practice which all but disappeared in the often hostile conditions prevalent in much of the Diaspora. In fact, most halakhists posit that without a home, one is unable to fulfill the mitzvah, just as one could not fulfill the mitzvah of mezuzah without an appropriate doorpost on which to hang it. Clearly, the Sages that instituted the observances of Chanukah formulated them to devolve on the house, a phenomenon that exists nowhere else in the world of our festivals — but why?

I would suggest that a key to unlocking this mystery lies in the beloved Jewish text of Pirkei Avot. Pirkei Avot is well known as a collection of ethical and religious maxims, but is less often mined for its historical significance. Each teaching in Pirkei Avot is labeled with the name of its teacher, and while timeless in application, was forged as a response to the spiritual challenges of the age. Two of the earliest passages in Pirkei Avot are actually messages from the fraught years of the story of Chanukah:

Yossi the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah would say: Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.

Yossi the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem would say: Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. (Avot 1:4-5)

At first blush, each text simply extols the merits of involvement in Torah study and charity respectively. However, a careful reading will reveal that both contemporaries express their teaching specifically regarding the home, which reflects the reality of their times.

In the years leading to Chanukah, Judaism was driven from the public square, first by a wave of intense assimilation and adoption of the values and mores of the Hellenistic world, and then by a series of crushing decrees issued by the Seleucid Empire in attempt to crush the observance of the Torah. Institutions which seemed  essential to the faith were snuffed out one by one: the Temple was neglected and then desecrated, the High Court was proscribed from functioning in its traditional role of regulating the Jewish calendar, and the venues for teaching Torah and tradition were shuttered. Against the backdrop of this chaos, Yossi ben Yoezer (who himself died a martyr as part of the struggle — Bereishit Rabba 65, 22.) and Yossi ben Yochanan developed a response; the last line of defense is the Jewish home.

“Let your home be a meeting place for the wise”— if the home is a gathering place for study when it is impossible elsewhere, if a commitment to deep engagement with the Torah and tradition can be sustained around the table, then each family has the capacity to nurture a strength of resolve to be counter-cultural, maintaining its own values even against the zeitgeist. “Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household” — and if that study leads to cultivating a culture of kindness and caring, it instills the authenticity of the tradition even against the onslaught of messages from the outside that threatened to snuff out the light of Judaism.

During those dark years, Judaism survived and thrived in these homes that followed the path of the two Yossis of the second century BCE, and it was those homes that proved the recruiting grounds for the battles fought by the Maccabees. Perhaps, then, when the sages came to establish a meaningful celebration of the miracles of Chanukah, the home was the natural venue for the celebration of the festival — because without the Jewish home, Chanukah could never have happened.

There are many institutions — synagogues, day schools, Jewish summer camps — that play important roles in fostering commitment to Torah. And yet, Chanukah affirms the centrality of the home. Parents and grandparents that create home environments permeated with a commitment to a rich and thick Judaism — observance of mitzvot, serious and rigorous study of Torah and the application of its teachings to the struggles of everyday life, commitment to marking Shabbat and festivals with joy and rigor, deep concern with providing for those in need — have the opportunity to create an alternative to the contemporary equivalents of the world of Hellenism that have made such inroads at eroding the passing of Judaism to the future. As we celebrate the thousands of anonymous Jewish families that followed the two Yossis and and who led to the liberation of Jerusalem, may God bless our efforts and allow our homes to glow with the light of Chanukah for generations to come.

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the spiritual Leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of Vaad Harabanim of Pittsburgh.