We are approaching the end of the holiday of Hanukkah. As you prepare to light the 8thcandle tonight, it’s time for a question about the holiday that you might never have considered. It is a rather quirky question which some might consider trivial, but it has given rabbis throughout the centuries an opportunity for thinking about the nature of what we call “miracles” and the meaning the holiday has for us.
Here is the question: According to the traditional story of Hanukkah, the Maccabees found a small jug of oil sealed with the seal of the High Priest indicating its appropriateness for lighting the menorah in the Temple. However, as we all know, the story teaches that there was only enough oil in the jug to burn for one day. A miracle took place and the oil burned for 8 days. So, given that, why do we light the menorah for 8 days in recognition of the miracle? It would seem that there were only 7 days of miracles as there was enough oil to burn naturally for one day.
I love this question and I am fascinated by the answers that rabbis have given over the years. I am only going to share two of the answers here. I present a few others on my podcast this week which you can hear at wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com and I invite you to listen to the episode entitled “Seven or Eight” which I posted this morning. But, even in my podcast, I can only offer some of the many answers that have been presented over the years.
Before I offer the two answers which I find most meaningful, it is important to point out that the idea of celebrating Hanukkah for 8 days is explained independently of the oil story in the much earlier texts of the books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha.
The dedication of the Temple in the time of Solomon lasted for 8 days so it would make sense that the “re-dedication” would also last 8 days. In addition, the second book of Maccabees connects the 8 day celebration with the fact that the Maccabees wanted to celebrate Sukkot which they had missed a few months before because of the war. So, they celebrated Sukkot for 8 days and then declared that future celebrations of the re-dedication would also last 8 days.
But, to return to the question, here are two answers to the question as to why we celebrate the miracle of the oil for 8 days.
First answer: some rabbis teach that 7 days of Hanukkah are for the miracle of the oil and the 8th is to celebrate the military victory of the Maccabees which also was a miracle.
This is really a critical thought because it must be viewed in the context of the Talmudic (and later) rabbis who adamantly and deliberately and the focus of the holiday from the celebration of a military victory to the celebration of a purely divine miracle of making 1 day of oil burn for 8 days.
The rabbis had reasons for making this shift. It focused attention on God rather than on human power and, in an era of foreign domination, it was likely more prudent to downplay the idea of political rebellion the Maccabees represented. But, the story of the Maccabee’s faith and courage can not be forgotten and thus the mentioning of the Maccabees in the context of this question, even if it is “one” versus “seven”, is a critical reminder that we do not depend on divine miracles. Human beings must act rather than merely depend upon God.
Another answer to the question focuses on the oil itself and claims that the very fact that a pure jug of oil was found after the desecration of the Temple was, in and of itself, a miracle. So, we light one light for the fact that the oil existed and then 7 lights for the miracle of its endurance.
I love this answer because it reminds us that when we look for “miracles” around us and look for the things which make life significant and meaningful, we can often find them in the aspects of our life which are readily visible, which we might otherwise take for granted.
It is the very presence of those things always around us which make our lives meaningful and which can be the most spiritually uplifting and sacred.
May the meaning of the celebration of Hanukkah continue to uplift us in the days ahead and inspire us to bring light to a world which so desperately needs light.