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.