Joseph, Olive Oil & Chag Habanot – 3 shorts for Shabbat Hanukkah-Rosh Hodesh Tevet

Exactly XX year ago, Miketz was the Torah reading on my Bat Mitzvah, and some years later, and many miles away, my son’s too.

The bat mitzvah was at the reform synagogue, Ohr Chadash (a new light) in Haifa, Israel. It was winter, and “one never knows what the weather will do”, so my mom and I got a “warm” woven, blue and white skirt and short jacket. My description doesn’t do it justice – it was really lovely. Nobody particularly cared or pushed me to do anything, but I wanted to read from the Torah. For the weeks prior, I studied weekly with the rabbi so I could read the short maftir (on a 3-year cycle) and the haftara. After the service, we all went home to our “3 rooms” (i.e. 2 bedrooms and a living room) apartment, where all my immediate family and close friends had some food and time to just be together. Presents included thick books titled “4000 years of Jewish history”, arts and crafts kits and enough money to buy my first record, Shocking Blue with their biggest hit, Venus.

The maftir was about Joseph “Jacobson” and his wife, Osnat who’s described as “the daughter of Poti-fera, the priest of Onn” and according to the sages is really Dina’s daughter, expanding their family. They have two sons: Ephrayim & Menashe. Rav Hirsch (1808-1888) rejects the simplistic, common translation of Menashe to be  “G-d has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” and perhaps based on a hint from Rabbi Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) suggests another read, which would reject Joseph forgetting anything, least of all his own toil and his father’s house! Fortunately, says Rav Hirsch “to forget” is not the only meaning of מנשה; it also denotes “being a creditor”. Accordingly, נשני nashani would mean: G-d has turned my tragedy and my family into my creditors; what until now seemed to me misfortune and abuse, G-d has turned into an instrument to shape my happiness, so that I find myself deeply indebted to my troubles and to my family”.

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If you told me, growing up, that Hanukkah is an agricultural holiday from the Torah, I would probably alternate between surprise and disbelief. Hanukkah? Everybody knows it’s about the Maccabees and their battles which can be hiked at and re-imagined; a miracle and a flask of oil, which rekindled the light in the Temple menorah; presents and get together, but agricultural? What’s to do? It’s raining and cold! Besides, we have our agricultural holidays: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot! and those are commemorated in the modern Israel with wonderful celebrations in the kiubtzim, so that must be all there is.

In the Israel that I grew up in, there were citrus orchards and apple trees; fields of wheat and barley. Olive trees, on the other hand, were largely associated with Arabic villages, and not much attention was spent on how one goes from “olive tree” to “olive oil”. Who knew that right at Hanukkah is the time of harvest and production of olive oil throughout Israel, to this very day!

The Torah in its way presents it in a verse that many read daily as part of the Blessings of the Shma:

וְנָתַתִּ֧י מְטַֽר־אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ׃

I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—

וְנָתַתִּ֛י עֵ֥שֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ֖ לִבְהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃

I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.

Notice the annual cycle: there will be rain in its time so we can collect our produce, also in its time: דגן – dagan, wheat to make bread from, – symbolizing Shavuot; תירוש – tirosh – wine making grapes, symbolizing Sukkot and יצהר – yitzhar, oil, symbolizing Hanukkah! We will also have animal food, barley, indicating, the bounty will last until next Pesach, thus giving us a full annual cycle how it will be to “eat and be satisfied”.

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This Shabbat is also Rosh Hodesh (the new moon of the month of) Tevet, which in some North African communities is consider חג הבנות – “Chag Habanot”, Id El-banat (Arabic) or Fete des Filles (French). The holiday was kept primarily in Tunisia, where, according to tradition, the Temple’s priests were exiled to, and thus maintains a number of ancient traditions, and celebrates this day, which always falls in the heart of Hanukkah, to salute women along Jewish history. About Hanukkah we’re told in the Talmud (Shabbat 23:1) that women are obligated in candle lighting “because they were in the same miracle”. In the Scroll of Esther, we’re told that, that on the “10th month” (i.e. Tevet) Esther was crowned to be queen. Hanukkah and Purim share many commonalities: they are both “human-made” victories, but alas! in this case, human actually means women-made. The day was celebrated with great joy, foods, gift-giving, music and dance, to bring in “tastes” from Purim into Hanukkah. In the modern state of Israel, “mother’s day” is (was?) always part of Hanukkah and now I just wonder, if that’s how it traveled. One way or another, maybe a good opportunity to celebrate the women in your life, maybe with an olive oil massage 😊

Shabbat Shalom, Hanukkah Same’ach & Hodesh Tov!!

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