Why We Read What We Do on Chanukah

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By Rabbi Jon Cutler

Parshat Miketz

Ever notice that Parshat Miketz is always read on the intermediate Shabbat of Chanukah? Why?

There’s a bigger issue — Chanukah is not mentioned at all in the Torah. In fact, it was so unimportant Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, a medieval French rabbi and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and commentary on the Tanakh) finds the Torah connection.

However, he discusses this in the Talmud, and not in his Torah commentary. He writes his commentary in the middle of Tractate Shabbat, Babylonian Talmud, Daf 21b through 23a, regarding the laws of Chanukah. What does he say about the connection between Chanukah and the story of Joseph?

He said that the Jerusalem Talmud didn’t even mention it and the Babylonian Talmud discusses the holiday only in reference to lighting candles in Tractate Shabbat. So why did the rabbis determine that Miketz would always be read during Chanukah?

Rashi begins by looking at Parshat Vayeshev, the Torah portion that is read before Parshat Miketz, Shabbat Chanukah.

In this parshah, Joseph’s brothers are jealous of him and throw him into a pit.

So, Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe — the ornate robe he was wearing — and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it. (Genesis 37:17-24)

A few verses later, again it says the cistern was empty, and had no water in it. Rashi asks: “Why did the Torah tell us twice that the pit was empty and there was no water in it?” The Torah could have stated this verse once but instead it stated it twice.

Rashi cites a midrash that after the death of Jacob, Joseph, vizier of Egypt, insisted that he wanted to go back and visit the pit in which his brothers had thrown him in, and from which he was sold into slavery in Egypt. This would be the second time, hence in reference to the second time that Torah mentions the pit, that he was involved with that pit.

Joseph returns to the pit and, looking at the pit, he kneels besides the pit. His brothers, we are told, found him kneeling at the edge of the pit, and they panicked. They feared that Joseph’s temper was building and building, and he would finally do what they were afraid he was going to do — he would kill them all.

As it turned out, Joseph wasn’t angry nor was he voicing regret for everything that had happened to him. In fact, he was praying. He was giving thanks to God for all that he had done for him, and for the miracles God did for Joseph, preserving his life, and for making him the instrument for saving the tribes from certain death in the famine in the desert.

In Parshat Vayeshev, the week before Chanukah, Joseph was thrown into the pit. In Parshat Miketz, Shabbat Chanukah, his life turns around. In fact, he ends up being released from prison and saves his family and future of the people of Israel. Joseph prayed while he was in the pit and God answered him. Now, he prayed prayers of thanksgiving outside the pit. So, we read Parshat Vayeshev before Chanukah and Parshat Miketz during Chanukah.

Finally, we recite the following “B’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu” over candles and engage in special customs, even for a holiday that isn’t in the Torah. The rabbis declared these days, Purim and Chanukah, to be important because we could have disappeared as a nation if the miracles we commemorate never happened. We thank God for delivering us as he delivered Joseph.

Rabbi Jon Cutler is rabbi for Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County and a retired Navy chaplain. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.