[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]
[This post is actually my article from this week's Toronto Torah.]
I imagine that somewhere in the bowels of Revenue Canada, office staff gather every January 5th or July 17th to toast the anniversary of some little-known loophole-closing legislation. Perhaps ecologists similarly celebrate the day when a codicil was amended to further protect our environment. But who would ever expect Jews to celebrate a minor legislative achievement? Our holidays tend to mark blood-and-guts, slavery-to-freedom battles; Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, these are major milestones!
And yet, Jews of two millennia ago did observe a holiday marking a minor legal victory: The 24th of Tevet. As the gemara (Bava Batra 115b) explains, citing Megilat Taanit, “On the 24th of Tevet we returned to justice, for the Sadducees said that a daughter should inherit equally with a son’s daughter. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai dealt with them, saying, ‘Fools! What is your source for this?’ And no one could answer him except one elder… and he defeated them, and they made that day into a Yom Tov.” [Note: A variant text assigns this holiday to the 24th of Av.]
Certainly, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s triumph must have been of interest to the Trusts & Estates attorneys of his day and to families involved in inheritance battles, but who else noticed this enough to warrant jubilant celebration, not to mention the omission of tachanun? This certainly was not the final victory of the sages over the Sadducees, so why does this event warrant commemoration across the generations?
The answer may be that with his defeat of the Sadducees in this arena, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai strengthened the Masorah, the transmission of Jewish tradition, for each Jewish family.
Our national Masorah is a mighty rope, but it is composed of many thin threads: the relationships of millions of pairs of parents and children, of teachers and students. The collective cord is tough and resilient, but each individual thread is frail and vulnerable. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who issued many edicts to preserve Judaism, sought to defend the individual family’s Masorah against the inroads of the Sadducees, and we celebrate his victory.
The personal nature of this legislation is particularly important. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai also defeated the Sadducees on a major national issue, the setting of the proper date for Shavuot (Menachot 65a), but no special holiday was declared for that victory – perhaps because that was the national issue of our avodah in the Beit haMikdash, and so our Masorah was never truly under threat.
Our calendar would become far more fragile later in Jewish history. In the early 10th century, Aharon ben Meir attempted to wrest control of the Jewish calendar’s calculation, and the point on which he made his stand affected the date on which each individual Jewish family would observe Pesach and Rosh HaShanah. Without a central Beit haMikdash, with an exiled Jewish population, this would have threatened the cohesion of our Masorah far more than the earlier calendar challenge. Therefore, when Rabbeinu Saadia (later to become Rabbeinu Saadia Gaon) triumphed over Aharon ben Meir, a national holiday was declared – again, to celebrate the cementing of our Masorah.
We no longer mark the 24th of Tevet in any noticeable way; presumably, we will say Tachanun this Sunday. Nonetheless, we would do well to pause and consider Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s great achievement, and the way it relates to us. What are we doing, how are we shaping our household and training our children, to ensure the solidity of our tradition? Will our children know the Masorah? And, in many ways more important, will they love it enough to pass it on to their own children?
The 24th of Tevet comes along one month after Chanukah, another Yom Tov marking the survival of Torah. The two events could not be more different, the 25th of Kislev a blaring, glaring military victory and the 24th of Tevet a relative whisper. Nonetheless, each is an important occasion, each is a cementing of our Masorah. Each, in its own way, played a major role in bringing us to our own day intact, carrying our people and our Torah forward.