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What Happened to Tractate Chanukah?

What Happened to Tractate Chanukah?



In preparation for Chanukah, my friend and I decided to study the tractate of the Mishnah that discusses the holiday. We were surprised to learn, however, that there is no such tractate. Why is that?


You are correct. Although the Chanukah menorah does merit a few scattered mentions in the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah the Prince, the compiler of the Mishnah, did not dedicate a portion of his work to this holiday. Why is this?

Some provide the following answer: The heroes of the Chanukah story were the Hasmonean clan, who had defeated the Greeks and restored Jewish independence to the Land of Israel. However, after their victory, they decided to establish a monarchy. This was a problem because the Hasmoneans were of Levite priestly stock, and G‑d had already promised that only the descendants of David (from the tribe of Judah) may be appointed to the throne (see II Samuel 7:12–15). That being so, Rabbi Judah the Prince, a scion of the Davidic dynasty, chose not to emphasize their victory—and subsequent usurpation of power—in his compilation of the Mishnah.

However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe rejects this explanation for a number of reasons:

  1. There are complimentary mentions of the Hasmoneans in various parts of the Mishnah, which serve to demonstrate that there was no resentment.
  2. It is preposterous to suggest that Rabbi Judah the Prince would deprive the Jewish nation of vital, practical knowledge just because of an alleged family feud.

He therefore adopts an entirely different approach, which takes a look at the fundamental reasons behind the compilation of the Mishnah. You see, the same question could be asked about many other very central mitzvahs that are only minimally and obliquely discussed in the Mishnah. There’s no Tractate Tefillin, for example, or Tractate Mezuzah. Even the very first Mishnah doesn’t begin by telling you that you must say Shema Yisrael in the morning, but by asking, “What is the right time for saying the Shema?” In other words, the Mishnah presumes a certain basic knowledge and carries on from there.

There’s a good historical reason for this. Initially, it was forbidden to transcribe any part of the oral tradition. Only after the Temple was destroyed, and the Jewish infrastructure was in a precarious state, was it decided to collect the traditions and laws in an extremely concise form, so that they not be lost forever. It was only because of the pressing need that the laws, which had been transmitted orally for generations, were allowed to be committed to writing. But which laws? Only those that might otherwise be lost. Those laws and customs over which there was no such concern were to remain a purely oral tradition.

That is the reason there is only minimal discussion in the Mishnah of commonplace mitzvot such as tzitzit, tefillin or mezuzah. Everyone knew how to make them and what they needed to look like, so Rabbi Judah had neither reason nor mandate to include them in his new work.

Now, the Chanukah miracle had happened not long before the Mishnaic period, and the events as well as the observances were still fresh in the minds of the people. In addition, there were a number of works, such as Megillat Taanit and Megillat Antiochus, which contained the laws and lore of the holiday, and were available to the masses. As such, not only would including Chanukah in the Mishnah be superfluous, it would be forbidden—since the prohibition against writing down oral tradition would still apply in such a case. It was only much later, with the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, that a wider discussion of Chanukah and its laws was included in Tractate Shabbat.

Heichal Menachem, vol. 3, pp. 221–231.
Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for
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levi rapoport brooklyn, NY January 4, 2012

attn charles hoffman A basic principle of Judaism 101 is that a biblical commentators' objective is not to write a practical law book, but to give an academic perspective on studying the Torah. Compare the names you mention with their actual halachic works, responsas, and tallies of the 613 commandments. Reply

Avrohom December 29, 2011

Chanukah in mishna I once heard that there is no mishna on the above mention laws, they were the precise laws that the enemies wanted to abolish.
And chanukah was still very fresh and of a rebellious nature, so they were scared to print it. Reply

hoffman December 28, 2011

re tephilin as a non-mishnaic set of laws and yet, there are ample opinions that support the idea that tephilin "evolved" - and were, in fact mitzvot d'rabanan, rabbinic commandments, which were subsequently accepted and made uniform at the time of the Babylonian Talmud.

See, for example, the Rahbo in the Torah portion of Bo, who explicitly says that Tephilin is a rabbinic commandment, and that the phrases ukshartem and totaphot are general and could mean just to keep the law close to you in a metaphoric sense.

See also, those who don't count tephilin as biblical commandments like the i'bn Ezra. Reply

Anonymous December 26, 2011

come aways On December 16 , 2009 i made comments about my lack of Judaic education and specifically regarding Chanukah.

Even though i am not conversant with the Mishna, your answer to the question is comprehensible to me. It's like Rashi skipping commentary on issues that are straightforward, it is reasonable that Judah the Prince took a similar approach.

For me it doesn't matter why Chanukah didn't make it into the Mishna. The tradition got handed down, and that works for me. Historically, most if not all religions were wiped out by the Greeks. Judaism survived, miraculously. Good thing for the identity of the Jewish nation and Jews individually. Reply

levi rapoport brooklyn, ny December 26, 2011

attn charles hoffman The dispute between rashi and R"T regarding tefilin is named such because they are the most recent to argue such. The dispute actually predates them by many generations. Even as early as the Geonim we find a discussion on this matter, and there are tefilin in the R"T style discovered in the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel. Reply

Yechiel Greene brooklyn and bet shemsh, us / israel December 22, 2009

ignorance I looked at the "gutnick edition" of Rabbi Miller's which can be viewed as a sanitzed view of faith that applies a very stilted orthodoxy (of belief, not practice) and clearly seeks to present a "happy face - shabbos party" view of Judaism.

Unfortunately, while some of the greats of the chassidic world were not afraid to attack the then "orthodoxies" (see, for example, the Kotsker's decrying of "hanhagos"), the current view in Black-hat Orthodoxy is to whitewash any issues which might sound even remotely controversial, and to place everyone who ever sat on a dais above reproach.

There are alternate theories as to the development of halacha which they won't touch specifically because they overturn preconceptions and the "conventional wisdom".

However, there are times when even long-held beliefs need adjusting if one is to remain a true believer in what really matters - torah min shamayim (torah from heaven) and its immtable relationship to am yisrael (the nation of israel). Reply

charles hoffman ny, ny December 21, 2009

chanuka & its laws Answer to : Michoel Shraga HaKatan.

I did not say there were no laws of Chanuka at the time of the Mishna - what I did say was that there were various practices - explicitly B' Shamai & B' Hillel, and thus there was no agreed practice. These various practices were not codified and decided in the Mishna because they weren't necessarily considered law - just practice.
What I did say was that the Bavli brought these practices to the "court of law" - ie. the Bavli discussed them and then ruled according to its principles - in order to standardize practice and relegate the differences between B' Shamai & B' Hillel to history while choosing a "winner" based on its (the Bavli's) established norms for deciding halacha.
If anything, it's a perfect example of the role of the Gemara in codifying as law one of many divergent practices. Reply

R' Yechiel Greene Brooklyn, ny December 20, 2009

re - ignorance? One shouldn't view as being one of ignorance; there is good reason to at least note the 2 sets of laws, Chanuka and Tephilin.

Tephilin, like Chanuka, it is mentioned only in passing in a few mishnayot, and its laws are not formalized until deep into the Bavli.
While the explanation for this condition provided by the Rambam in his commentary on Mishna M'nachot is that the entire set of laws were "halacha l'moshe m'sinai" with uniform practice, it may be that the discussions in the Bavli were included to codify and bring order to diverse practices.

And, if the term "disagreement" was distasteful to LH, one can any other term that he (or she) suggests, as long as it allows for the possibility that divergence of R' Tam is recognized as something that may reflect practice differing from that which was codified by Rashi.

One can question the evolution of halacha while still being bound by it; and the answer to questions you find troubling isn't to target the questioner as ignorant. Reply

Michoel Shraga HaKatan December 20, 2009

To Mr. Hoffman: I cannot accept your suggestion that there were not yet any laws of Chanukah at the time of the Mishna. After all, the schools of Hillel and Shammai had already had a major disagreement on whether one should add or subtract a candle each night. As the Mishna records many Hillel vs Shammai disagreements, I do not see why this one would be any different. Reply

LR new york, 11225 December 19, 2009

ignorance mr hoffman should do some more research on the idea of "disagreements" in jewish law in general and tefilin in particular. Might i recommend the gutnick edition of The principles of faith; principle 8, by chaim miller. Reply

charles hoffman nyc, ny us December 17, 2009

chanuka & tephilin there is an alternative theory as to why the mishna doesn't specify the details of menora lighting, etc. It could really be that in Mishnaic times, even though many people lit chanuka candles, there was no real uniformity that rose to the level of halacha. Only in later periods - in the Bavli - was there a sense that the procedure must be codified.

Similarly, tephilin; the Chassidic practice of wearing 2 pair of tephilin is proof that the fine-tuning of the details of tephillin evolved through the Bavli and were still not fully formed over 600 years later - thus the dispute between R'Tam & Rashi. Reply

Anonymous December 16, 2009

Chanukah It so happened many years ago it came time for me to learn about Chanukah as my children entered elementary Jewish school. I had no formal Jewish education. I went to the local library since i did not know about religious texts. I got the gist of the holiday and it passed the test of telling my children. Many years later i started to add more. This year i will speak about Judith at the Chanukah table. It is the Yahrzeut of my mother and stories about women seem to light up the table for the girls/women present.
This personal journey has very little to do with the above except to consider myself lucky not to have waded into religious texts on the topic of Chanukah. I can appreciate how the Lubavitcher Rebbe's explanations are correct in my humble view. His always seem to work for me. Reply

Itche Brooklyn, NY December 15, 2009

Megilat Antiochus Is there any source that Megilat Antiochus preceded the Mishna Reply

gershon mcgreevy KS December 15, 2009

Macabees They were not included in the Tanack because they are historically interesting but not at all sacred, and only sacred texts are part of the Tanack Reply

Marcy Dallas, texas December 15, 2009

What happened to tractate Channukah? isn't there a Macabees I and II (I think called the Apocypha)? Are they part of the Tanach? If not, why not? Reply

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