The Purification of the Mikdash
In memory of Abraham Gontownik z"l.
One of the salient but often neglected components of the Chanuka miracle is the re-purification of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, “ve-tiharu et mikdashekha.” The need to purify the Mikdash assumes, of course, that the Mikdash had been contaminated by the idolatrous worship of the Greeks.
Although from a phenomenological/metaphysical standpoint the very entry into the Mikdash and the vile actions committed therein constituted a pollution of its kedusha, was the kedusha actually compromised? Were the stones of the mizbei’ach and the utensils prohibited for re-use al pi Halakha? After all, the halakha is that “ein adam oser davar she-eino shelo” – a person cannot impose a prohibition upon something that he does not own. For example, I cannot confer an issur upon someone else’s item by issuing a neder (a halakhic oath). Similarly, if I worship someone else’s animal, I do not confer upon it the status of avoda zara and its concomitant issurim. How, then, can we understand how the Greeks defiled the Beit Ha-Mikdash by imposing upon its utensils an issur of avoda zara?
The gemara (Avoda Zara 52b) implicitly asks this question, but its answer, rather than clarifying, stirs a large debate among the Rishonim. The gemara explains the decision of the Chashmona’im to “bury” the stones of the mizbei’ach after they returned to the Mikdash based on a pasuk in Yechezkel (7:12), where the prophet predicts the entry of the Babylonians into the Mikdash at the time of the destruction of the First Temple: “U-va’u bah peritzim ve-chileluha,” “scoundrels will enter it [the Mikdash] and profane it.” The Chashmona’im extrapolated from the word “ve-chileluha” that when gentile assailants enter the Mikdash and avail themselves of its utensils for their ritual worship, the utensils become forbidden and the kedusha is halakhically compromised. What the pasuk does not address, however, is the halakhic mechanism by which the desecration is caused. After all, ein adam oser davar she-eino shelo!
Rashi provides the key toward solving this problem. He asserts that once the gentiles entered the Mikdash, all of its utensils lost their kedusha, and thus automatically became hefker – the property of no one. The Yevanim then obtained ownership of the utensils by seizing the hefker; when they worshiped avoda zara with these utensils, they imposed the status and the issurim of avoda zara.
Rashi is alluding to an interesting element regarding the monetary status of hekdesh. The ba’alut (proprietorship) upon hekdesh is a function of its kedusha. Since we are not dealing with ownership by a particular person but rather an association with a particular institution, the ownership is atypical. In other words, there exists no objective or intrinsic monetary ownership of hekdesh. Instead, there is a status of hekdesh that mandates certain halakhot and also associates the item with a particular entity that “possesses” that item – i.e. the institution of hekdesh. Once the item loses its kedusha and its status, it is no longer owned by hekdesh, since its ownership in the first place was only a consequence of its halakhic status and the attendant kedusha. Rashi explains that the gentiles were able to impose the issur of avoda zara on the keilim of the Beit Ha-Mikdash because they were considered the halakhic owners of these items.
What Rashi does not address is why the kedusha of these items disappeared immediately upon the entry of the Greeks. What mechanism dismantled the kedusha?
To avoid this question, the Tashbatz (3:5) maintains that when the Greeks entered the Mikdash, the Jewish authorities were mafkir the utensils; they renounced their ownership, actively creating a state of hefker and thereby allowing the gentiles to assume possession and prohibit these items through their pagan worship. This position is historically suspect and somewhat difficult to imagine, but the very fact that the Tashbatz felt compelled to adopt it indicates his uneasiness with Rashi’s principle of automatic loss of kedusha and consequent hefker.
How might Rashi explain how these items forfeited their kedusha, such that they were automatically hefker and at the disposal of the Greeks? The Mishna La-Melekh (in his Sefer Parashat Derakhim) and the Maharit (at present I cannot find the exact teshuva) posit a very interesting concept that has halakhic and even theological import: Any utensil that has halakhic kedusha-status that lies in the possession of a gentile automatically loses its kedusha. Once it is bereft of its kedusha, according to Rashi, its legal ownership evaporates and the Greeks may take possession.
The Shita Mekubetzet (Bava Metzia 24b) cites a teshuva of the Maharam Me-Rotenburg that applies a similar principle in a more limited scope. Mere possession of an item by a gentile does not suffice to dispossess it of its kedusha. However, any time an item is plundered as part of a general despoliation, its kedusha is automatically surrendered. Possession by gentiles alone does not inhibit kedusha, but the state of being pillaged is antithetical to the prospect of kedusha.
A third solution to this problem is offered by the Tashbatz, who argues that the state of ruin (even if prompted by natural causes) revokes the kedusha of an item or a place. This has critical ramifications for batei kenesset and batei midrashot that have fallen into states of deterioration.
There are two additional routes toward the resolution of this question. According to both, what removed the kedusha was the very usage of these utensils and the benefit received thereby – the halakha of me’ila. If a Jew derives benefit from an item of hekdesh, he commits the sin of me’ila (elaborated upon in the massekhet so named). Aside from the various punishments he receives, the object loses its kedusha and becomes chullin (without holiness). It is possible that the loss of kedusha alluded to by Rashi was a product of me’ila, the use of these utensils for profane purposes.
This solution, however, raises an additional problem, and the laws of me’ila do not generally apply to gentiles. A gentile who derives benefit from an item of hekdesh does not perform an act of me’ila, does not receive the punishment for me’ila, and does not divest the item of its kedusha. How, then, did the Greeks manage to compromise the kedusha of the keilim?
Here we arrive at two possible approaches. We might succeed in locating Jewish violators who committed the sin of me’ila and thus caused the items to lose their kedusha. Alternatively, we might maintain that the Greeks themselves, despite the fact that they were gentiles, succeeded in creating a scenario of me’ila.
The first approach is adopted by the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or, who presents a novel and somewhat radical position that captures the tragic circumstances prior to the nes (miracle) of Chanuka. The “peritzim” who entered the Mikdash and defamed it were not the Greeks, but rather the Hellenist Jews. These Jews – peritzei Yisrael – were capable of me’ila, and it was their act of me’ila that destroyed the kedusha. Without kedusha, the very ownership of hekdesh faded, allowing the Greeks to acquire possession and impose the issur of avoda zara through their idolatrous acts.
The Ramban argues against the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or’s position based on a Tosefta (Megilla 2) that asserts that a mizbei’ach can never be de-sanctified through the process of pidyon, redeeming an item of hekdesh by offering hekdesh money in exchange. From this law, the Ramban infers that the mizbei’ach has the status of a kli sharet, a utensil used in the Mikdash, which never loses its kedusha; neither me’ila nor pidyon succeeds in stripping a kli sharet of its sanctity. Accordingly, me’ila, even when perpetrated by Jews, would have no deleterious effect in removing the kedusha of a mizbei’ach, since it is considered a kli sharet.
To defend the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or, we must scrutinize the various assumptions underlying the position of the Ramban.
First, the Ramban assumes that a mizbei’ach indeed has the status of a kli sharet. This is not stated explicitly by the Tosefta, which only mentions that pidyon is impossible upon the stones of the mizbei’ach.
Second, the Ramban assumes that the same status that applies to the mizbei’ach as a distinct functional instrument of the Mikdash would also apply to stones that have been detached from that mizbei’ach. The Yevanim evidently removed stones from the altar, which they used for their own heathen purposes. These stones, not the entire altar, were buried by the Chashmona’im. Even if the Ramban is correct in regarding the mizbei’ach as an entity that can never lose its kedusha because it is considered a kli sharet, its constituent stones, when disjoined, may possibly lose their kedusha.
Finally, the Ramban takes no notice of the special circumstances of this episode. A kli sharet might retain its kedusha eternally because of its utility; it always has a valuable use in terms of facilitating the service of the Beit Ha-Mikdash. But what happens when the Beit Ha-Mikdash itself is dominated by invading pagans and the service is suspended? Do the utensils still retain their kedusha, despite their current inactivity? Or might we maintain that under such circumstances, me’ila can potentially affect the kedusha?
The Ra’avad (in his commentary to Avoda Zara, as well as in his commentary on the Rif, known as Katav Sham) suggests the second possibility we mentioned with regard to who perpetrated the me’ila in the Beit Ha-Mikdash: “The Torah gave the gentiles the ability to prohibit these utensils [stones] through me’ila, even though a gentile is usually not a candidate for me’ila.” The pasuk in Yechezkel informs us of a special category of me’ila that was operative during the entry of the gentiles to plunder the Mikdash. Indeed, even a kli sharet, which under normal circumstances cannot relinquish its kedusha, in our case fell prey to this me’ila through destruction.
By isolating this case, the Ra’avad is able to solve two questions at once: How can a gentile execute me’ila and how can me’ila deprive kedusha from a mizbei’ach, which is apparently a kli sharet?
When confronted with a halakhic problem, there are two general options. One might apply conventional categories (possibly in novel ways) to explain the current phenomenon, but conventional models often cannot properly explain the case, such that there is a need for the development of new halakhic constructs. Thus, the Ra’avad developed a new paradigm of me’ila, which operates under completely different laws from the standard model. In contrast, to explain the manner by which the ba’alut of hekdesh was removed, several mefarshim developed overall concepts of what sustains the kedusha of hekdesh. In short: First try to solve a dilemma through something “old”; if that fails, search for something “new.”
The incompatibility between the gentile world and the world of kedusha is reflected in the Maharit’s statement that gentile possession of a davar she-bekedusha suffices to remove that status. There are several religious states of which a non-Jew is capable: piety, morality, selflessness, justice, and even saintliness. But kedusha in the transcendent sense, in the manner in which we apply it to Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu – “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh” – has little meaning to a gentile world that has sacrificed the transcendence of G-d in order to humanize the Divine.
From the teshuva of the Maharam Mi-Rotenburg, we can infer that kedusha implies “sovereignty.” When the items in question are pillaged by others, the kedusha automatically ceases to exist.
From the Tashbatz, we may derive that for kedusha to be sustained (at least in terms of kedushat chefetz, holiness of an object) there must be active involvement in the world of ritual performance. Kedusha cannot exist in a vacuum. Once an object of a site has become desolate and no longer active, it forfeits its kedusha.
And the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or reminds us that so often, we are our own worst enemies.
May we be zocheh to once again rededicate a Mikdash and actualize the notion of kedusha in our lives.
 The classification of the legal ba’alut of hekdesh is a central question in Halakha. For amplification, see Chiddushei Ha-Grach al Ha-Rambam, Hilkhot Me’ila 2:5.
 For more on this issue, see Zevachim 27b; Rambam, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 20; Ra’avad, Hasagot to the Rambam’s short list of mitzvot (at the beginning of the Mishneh Torah), positive commandment 20; Minchat Chinukh, mitzva 95. Regarding whether the presence of a mizbei’ach is me’akev, see Rambam, Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 1:1; 1:13; 2:1.
 Regarding what money of hekdesh was used to pay for the stones of the mizbei’ach, see Ketubot 110b; Yerushalmi Shekalim, perek 4; Rambam, Shekalim, perek 4. See also the Minchat Chinukh in his additions to mitzva 40, regarding the mizbei’ach of Ya’akov Avinu.
 For more on this point, see Me’ila 20a, Rashi and Rabbenu Gershom ad loc. See also Or Samei’ach, Hilkhot Akum 8:1.
 For a fuller exposition on this matter, see the opening sections of Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man. Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy would also be helpful.