Yevanim Nikbetzu Alay: Iyunim in the Chanukah Story

In the traditional song “Maoz Tzur,” we sing, “the Yevanim … broke the walls of my tower and timu (defiled) all of the oil.”

There is one opinion in the Gemara (Pesachim 17a) that the oil of the Beis Hamikdash cannot become impure. According to that opinion, the entire miracle of Chanukah is called into question. How can the Greeks defile something which cannot become defiled?

The Steipler Gaon, zt”l, answered the seeming discrepancy, citing a Gemara in Avodah Zarah (52b). Only the owner of an object can dedicate that object as an offering to avodah zarah (after which, it must be destroyed).

If so, how did the Yevanim cause the stones of the Mizbei’ach in the Beis Hamikdash to become forbidden? The Gemara answers based on a passuk (Yechezkel 7:22): “Uva’u bah pritzim v’chilleluha — the destroyers came in and profaned it.”

The Ramban (Milchamos Hashem) explains there that the Beis Hamikdash itself loses its kedushah. The destruction by the Yevanim of the kedushah of the Beis Hamikdash causes the now-chullin stones to be subject to the dinim of avodah zarah because they have been stripped of their protected status of being owned by Klal Yisrael.

Now, explains the Steipler Gaon, we can understand how the oil of the Beis Hamikdash could become tamei. The Gemara in Pesachim states explicitly that if the liquid is taken out of the Beis Hamikdash and becomes impure then, even if it is brought back into the Beis Hamikdash, it remains tamei. Therefore, when we apply the concept from the Gemara in Avodah Zarah, we learn that the entire Beis Hamikdash lost its kedushah. If so, we are prevented from applying the halachah that the oil of the Beis Hamikdash remains tahor. If there is no Beis Hamikdash, then there is no longer a place where the oil is sheltered to remain pure.

This explains why it says in Maoz Tzur, “The Yevanim… broke the walls of my tower (as the Ramban explained — the Beis Hamikdash has lost its kedushah) and (now the Yevanim are able to) contaminate (timu) all of the oil.”

However, now we can ask another question. The Gemara in Pesachim takes it a step further: The idea that liquids like oil cannot become tamei is only in regard to their ability to spread tumah and make another object tamei. However, even though the liquids are not infectious to others, they themselves are contaminated (tumas atzman yesh lahem). If so, there is no conflict. We no longer have the issue of the status of the oil. Simply, the oil does have tumah.

This seems to raise a serious difficulty in understanding the answer of the Steipler Gaon. Perhaps we can find a support for his approach, though.

The Tzlach in Pesachim asks about wine that becomes tamei in the Beis Hamikdash. Why can’t we simply use the rule of majority (rov) to be mevatel (nullify) the tumah of the wine?

We find that the rule with liquids is that if they drip slowly into an existing pool they acquire the identity of the pool. So if we were to let the tamei wine drip into a half-full barrel of wine that is tahor, the tamei wine should theoretically lose its previous identity as tamei and acquire the new identity of tahor wine.

We find a similar halachah in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 73a). If we drip wine that became forbidden because it was used for avodah zarah into a pit of kosher wine, then all of the wine in the pit is kosher — including the forbidden wine that dripped into the pit.

The Tzlach answers his own question by pointing out that this concept of following the majority is only true in regard to prohibited items (issurim). But tumah is a different category. It is not an innate prohibition. It is a contamination of the wine. And in such a case, the concept of its being nullified does not exist. On the contrary, it is the nature of anything tamei to pollute anything tahor that it touches and make it tamei.

Now we can apply this idea to the Steipler Gaon’s explanation.

Let’s think. What would be the halachah if the Yevanim had not removed the kedushah of the Beis Hamikdash? Then we would have oil in the Beis Hamikdash which itself is tamei but cannot cause anything else to be tamei. Such a status should be exactly parallel to the forbidden wine of the case in the Gemara in Avodah Zarah. There, if forbidden wine drips into kosher wine it is all kosher. Just like the question of the Tzlach.

Now we cannot apply the answer of the Tzlach about the substance that is tamei causing everything else to become tamei.

On the contrary, in the case of oil that became tamei, it should be just like issurim. Because this type of tumah cannot transmit tumah to other objects!

Therefore, it should be the din that it would lose its identity as tamei if dripped into a majority of oil that is tahor. Therefore, if the Beis Hamikdash had kept its kedushah, according to this one opinion in the Gemara in Pesachim the tamei oil of Chanukah could be purified by dripping into a pool of pure oil (as per the question of the Tzlach). It is only because the Beis Hamikdash has lost its kedushah that the oil is totally tamei and cannot be purified by dripping into a pool of tahor oil. (As per the answer of the Tzlach.)

Now we can have a greater appreciation of another phrase from Maoz Tzur: “From the remainder of the jars a miracle occurred.” Why are all of the jars miraculous? The miracle happened to only one jar. The identity of this jar, as one of many earlier jars, seems, at first, irrelevant.

But now we know more of the story. The Yevanim canceled the application of the halachah of oil though tamei, not being able to transmit tumah to anything else. Such a halachah is only within the Beis Hamikdash. But once the Yevanim destroyed the kedushah of the Beis Hamikdash, even dripping the Chanukah oil into tahor oil, it cannot remove the state of tumah and make it tahor.

Now all of the oil is completely tamei except for the one jug that became disconnected from its fellows and was miraculously untouched.