Excerpt from Secret and Sacred by Yehudis Litvak
(Secret and Sacred is the third and final book in the trilogy, following Swords and Scrolls and Spies and Scholars)
Elisha crouched behind the row of bushes at the top of the hill,
shielded his eyes from the harsh rays of the midday sun and squinted.
As far as the eye could see, Greek soldiers marched through the
valley in front of him. First, the cavalry passed by, slowly and orderly,
the horse hair on their decorated helmets swaying with the
wind. Their flow seemed endless. Elisha watched the horse nearest to
him, a brown beauty trotting gracefully as if its rider in full armor
were weightless. Elisha’s heart constricted. He tried to remember
how long it had been since he had ridden a horse. He recalled the
sensation of sitting in a saddle, high on top of the world, in control,
galloping against the wind, at one with the strong animal. How he
wished he had a horse like that!
Forcing himself back to the task at hand, Elisha tried to count
the soldiers, but quickly lost count. There were thousands of them.
After they finally passed, the infantry that followed was even more
numerous. They marched in a phalanx, in time with one another,
holding their spears straight and shields on the ready, their helmets
glistening in the low afternoon sun. For a moment, Elisha felt dizzy
viewing the endless stream. King Antiochus and his generals were
serious about wiping out the Jewish rebels this time. But it didn’t
matter how many there were, Elisha reminded himself. Hashem had
helped them win the previous two battles.
Yet, he felt uneasy. This army was different than either
Apollonius’s or Seron’s forces that the Maccabees defeated months
earlier. They seemed more organized, or maybe more determined.
Elisha waited for what seemed like forever until the last row of
marching soldiers were small as specks of dust on the road towards
Yerushalayim. Then he rose to his full height, stretched, and climbed
down the hill to get his donkey.
The donkey, munching on hay, oblivious to the danger hanging
over the land, did not seem nearly as appealing as the horse, but
it would have to do for now. Elisha patted the animal’s neck and
mounted. Carefully, he rode the donkey along the road, following
the army, but staying far enough away to be able to escape back into
the hills if he were spotted.
Suddenly, he saw the army ahead of him halt, all at once. Elisha
strained his eyes. The soldiers filled the flat lowlands all the way to
the hills. What were they doing?
Turning his donkey to the right, Elisha took a shortcut to the
nearby town of Emmaus, situated right at the bottom of the hills,
where the lowlands and the mountains met. He went around and
entered the town from the side of the hills.
The army was right there, setting up camp in Emmaus. Blending
in among the local residents, who were staring wide-eyed at the
proceedings in their town, Elisha watched the horsemen dismount
and begin pitching their tents as their commanders walked around
Within an hour, a tent city had sprouted in the previously quiet
Emmaus. Then, to Elisha’s amazement, the soldiers began building
fortifications around their camp. Some of them dug up the sandy
ground and piled up dirt. Others cut nearby trees and bushes. This
army looked like it was here to stay. Elisha gulped, then turned
around and headed up into the hills. He had to report these new
developments to Yehuda Hamaccabee.
It rained the next day. Inside the cave in the Maccabee camp,
in the faint light of the oil lamp, Elisha explained a difficult Torah
passage to the small group seated around him. The young men were
in their late teens, dressed in simple robes, fraying at the sides. At
age nineteen, Elisha wasn’t much older than his students, but they
looked up to him, both as their commander and their Torah teacher.
The students came from poor Jewish families and hadn’t been
granted a chance to learn Torah before the war had begun. Now, at
the Maccabee camp, between the training sessions and the battles,
they were eager to catch up.
Nechemia, one of the young men, asked a question, but Elisha
threw it back to his audience. Reuven attempted an answer.
“Mind if I listen in?” a deep voice asked. Elisha turned and saw
Shaul, Nechemia’s father, his heavy frame leaning against the cave
“Of course!” Elisha nodded, though he saw Nechemia shifting
uncomfortably. He threw Nechemia an encouraging smile. “That was
a great question, and a great answer. There is also another way to
He launched into a detailed explanation, forgetting that
they had an observer. The young men listened attentively, asking
When they were done, Nechemia exclaimed, “Brilliant!” Then
he glanced at his father and blushed.
Reuven immediately changed the subject. “Elisha, tell us what
you found out yesterday when you went to the lowlands.”
“Not much yet,” Elisha replied. “Lots of soldiers encamped in
Emmaus. I haven’t tried talking to anyone there.”
“Leave the talking to me,” Shaul said, stepping forward from
the cave wall.
Surprised, Elisha looked at him.
“I’ll go down there and find out everything we need to know,”
Nechemia asked, his voice incredulous, “Abba, you’ll go spying?!”
Shaul laughed. “I’ll do what I do best – I’ll go to the army camp
to sell my merchandise. I know my customers. I speak Greek, and I
know how to get them to talk. Don’t you worry!”
“But Abba, it’s dangerous!” Nechemia’s voice trembled.
Shaul waved his hand. “I’ve lived in Shomron all my life. Since
when am I afraid of danger?” His eyes glistened, and he added, “I
never thought I would merit to see my own son learn Torah. I am
so grateful! Hashem has been good to me beyond measure. Even if
something happens to me, I will leave this world in peace.”
Nechemia looked down. For a few moments, no one spoke.
Then Elisha asked gently, “How can we help? Tell us what you need
for the mission, Shaul.”
“Merchandise to sell, of course!” Shaul’s expression was all
business now, the rare moment of emotion all but forgotten.
“My Uncle Yitzchak should be able to help you with that,” Elisha
said. “You can speak to him tomorrow, when he comes to bring food
to our camp.”
As drained as Elisha was, he perked up during his nightly
learning session with Pinchas. With the young men under his
command, Elisha taught the Torah he had learned in a year and a
half since he’d joined the Maccabee army. But with Pinchas, a young
kohen from Yerushalayim who’d been a Torah scholar all his life,
he felt challenged to reach new heights. In addition to the Torah
Shebichsav, the Written Torah Elisha had learned as a child with his
father, Pinchas was an expert in the Torah Shebaal Peh, the Oral Torah
that complements the Torah Shebichsav. It was given to the Jewish
people at Har Sinai together with the Written Torah and was passed
down from generation to generation, from teacher to student.
That night, too, Pinchas did not disappoint. They delved into
the intricacies of bringing the korban shelamim, the peace offering,
and for that hour Elisha forgot all his worries and concerns.
Once they were clear on all the details, Pinchas said, “May
it be Hashem’s will that soon we win this war, take back the Beis
Hamikdash, and bring a korban shelamim there.”
Elisha responded with a heartfelt, “Amein!”
“Have you ever participated in a korban shelamim?” Pinchas
asked, rolling up his scroll.
Elisha shook his head. “And you?”
“Oh, I’ve seen many in Yerushalyim, but the best ones were the
korbanos todah – thanksgiving offerings – because the people would tell
stories about how they were saved from danger. One day, it was my
father’s turn to work in the Beis Hamikdash, and he helped a traveler
bring his korban todah, in thanksgiving for crossing the desert safely.
The traveler invited my whole family to join him for the seuda later
that day. At the seuda, I almost forgot that we had to finish all the food
that night, as the halacha requires. Who could eat when he told such
fascinating stories about his travels?” Pinchas grinned.
“It must have been interesting, growing up in Yerushalayim,
with your father working in the Beis Hamikdash.”
“It was!” Then Pinchas grew serious. “But even when we get the
Beis Hamikdash back, be’ezras Hashem, my father, alav hashalom, will
no longer be there to do the avodah.”
“But you will be there, Pinchas!” Elisha said earnestly. “You’ll
continue your father’s work.”
“Be’ezras Hashem. I hope by the time I turn twenty the Beis
Hamikdash will be back in our hands. I’ve been waiting to do the
avodah my whole life.”
Elisha nodded. He knew how much the avodah, the service in
the Beis Hamikdash, meant to Pinchas. “I’m sure your father will look
on from Heaven with pride,” he said.
“Thank you, Elisha.” Pinchas was silent for a moment, then
he glanced at Elisha and said, “You look like you want to ask me
“You know me too well.” Elisha chuckled.
“So ask.” Pinchas smiled.
“I love learning Torah Shebaal Peh,” Elisha began. “But I can’t
help wondering – why do we need to struggle with the text of the
Torah Shebichsav and find connections with the Torah Shebaal Peh?
Why didn’t Hashem just give the Torah Shebaal Peh to us in writing,
the same way as He gave us the Torah Shebichsav?”
“That’s a good question,” Pinchas replied thoughtfully.
“You sound just like your uncle, Tzaddok.”
Pinchas laughed. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It is.” Elisha smiled.
“There is a prohibition against writing down the Torah Shebaal
Peh.” Pinchas’ face turned serious. “But it’s not just that this isn’t
allowed. It’s impossible.”
“Because it’s too big?”
“Not only that. It’s because Torah is above human understanding,
and it cannot be fully expressed in human language.”
Elisha gave Pinchas a puzzled look.
“Torah is different than other branches of knowledge,” Pinchas
said. “Take counting, for example. You put one pomegranate into a
basket. Then you put another pomegranate in. You end up with two
pomegranates in the basket – as many as you put in. But Torah is
different. You learn one idea, then you learn another one, and as you
understand them better in your mind, you end up with much more
than just those two ideas. You end up with an understanding that
can lead you to other ideas.”
“And you’re saying that this understanding is not something
that can be written down?”
“Exactly. You can’t express it in words. It’s inside of you, a part
of you. That’s why the Torah is transmitted from teacher to student,
and that’s why it is not enough to just read a text. When we analyze
the words, and ask questions, and think them over, we internalize
the Torah we learn, and it becomes a part of us.”
Elisha contemplated the idea for a moment. “Maybe that’s why
your Uncle Tzaddok is so wise,” he said, “because he has so much
Torah inside of him.”
“I think so.” Pinchas grinned, “although I can’t claim to be
objective when it comes to Uncle Tzaddok.”
“Truth is, neither can I,” Elisha said, his face serious. Tzaddok
had become his mentor when he first came to the Maccabee camp,
after deserting from the Greek army, and he owed much of his
spiritual growth to Tzaddok.
“I’ll tell you something else Uncle Tzaddok told me,” said
Pinchas. “You can only become a vessel for Torah if you have yiras
shamayim, which is the key that opens the door to wisdom.”
Elisha nodded. Yiras shamayim – fear of Heaven – was something
he worked to acquire. He hoped and prayed that he was worthy of
becoming a vessel for Torah.