The Miracle of the Oil

Chanukah is a celebration of a great miracle, in the words of the Gemara:

“What is Chanukah? The rabbis taught that from the twenty fifth day of Kislev are eight days of Chanukah during which one cannot eulogise, nor fast. Because when the Greeks entered the Templethey defiled all of the oil. When the Chashmonaim, the Hasmoneans, strengthened and overpowered the Greeks, they could only find one jug of oil that still had the Cohen Gadol’s seal intact. There was only sufficient oil to light for one day, but a miracle occurred and it remained alight for eight days. The following year they established it as a festival for Hallel and thanks” (Shabbat 21b).

It is quite clear from the text that the reason that we have Chanukah is to commemorate the miracle of the oil. The Gemara states that Greeks had defiled all of the olive oil in the Temple. This oil was needed for lighting the Menorah, the seven-branched candelabra that was one of the vessels in the Beit Hamikdash. “Speak to Aharon and tell him ‘When you kindle the candles towards the face of the menorah, all seven lights must be lit’” (Bemidbar 8:2).

A sufficient amount of special pure olive oil was placed in the cups at the tip of the branches of the menorah every evening. “Take pure pressed olive oil for lighting, to keep the lamp burning” (Shemot 27:20). The Gemara explains that the only oil that was good enough for the purpose of lighting the menorah was “the first drops produced from the olive” (Menachot 86a). This oil was then further purified and processed until it was ready to be used in the Templeto light the lights.

This whole process took some time and needed to be done in a state of taharah, ritual purity. Therefore, the oil could not be prepared immediately but would take a period of eight days. (See Maharasha on Shabbat 21b) This explains the need for the eight day miracle. It would take the Jews eight days before fresh, suitable oil would be available, and so the minuscule amount of oil needed to last at least that long.

That may explain part of the passage from the Talmud, but one could ask another question on the Gemara’s question. Nowhere else do we find a similar question with regard to other festivals. The Gemara never asks ‘What is Pesach?’ nor even ‘What is Purim?’, so why does the Talmud suddenly ask the question “What is Chanukah?” This question is located in a passage of Gemara that discusses what oil can and cannot be used to light the Chanukah lights. It would appear that the Sages of the Gemara already knew of the existence and practice of such a festival. Why did they need to ask what it is?

Not only is the question peculiar, but the answer seems inappropriate to the question. If the inquiry concerned the nature of the festival then the answer should be something along the lines of ‘Chanukah is an eight day long festival during which we light candles, eat donuts, and spin the dreidel’. If each of us were asked the question what is Chanukah we would probably reply in this vein. We may mention the reason for the festival and the miracle of the oil, but this would in no way be a complete answer to the question “What is Chanukah?”

However, the Gemara replies with an answer that focuses on the miracle and does not explain what the festival is. Rashi explains the question in a slightly different way. He translates the inquiry as “For what miracle did they [the rabbis] establish it [Chanukah, as a holiday]?” Rashi explains that the question was not ‘What is this festival Chanukah?’, rather that the question was ‘Why do we celebrate the festival, for which miracle?’ The answer recalling the miracle of the oil is now a perfect answer.

We are still left in a quandary. Rashi implies that there was more than one miracle of Chanukah, and the Gemara was uncertain as to which specific miracle was selected as the reason for establishing the festival. We always thought that there was only one miracle, namely, that of the oil and the eight days. What other miracles were there?

The Miracle of the Victory

It is true that the Gemara recognises the miracle of the oil as being the only miracle, or the only one worthy of note. Yet there is another source that describes a different miracle and gives a different angle to the entire festival.

During the festival of Chanukah a special prayer is added to both the Amidah, the central prayer of the thrice-daily services, and to the Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after a meal. This prayer is known as the Al HaNisim, For the Miracles, after the prayer’s opening words.

“For the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the strength, and for the victories, and for the wars that You performed for our fathers in those days in this time.

In the time of Mattityahu the son of Yochanan the Cohen Gadol the Chashmonai, and his sons, when the wicked Greek kingdom rose against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah, and draw them away from Your will, You mercifully stood up for them in their time of need. You fought their fight, judged their claim, and took revenge for them. You gave the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, the tyrants into the hands of those who keep Your Torah. You made a great name for Yourself in the world, and a great victory for Your people.

Afterwards, Your children came to Your house, cleaned up Your sanctuary, purified Your Temple and lit lights in Your courtyard. They established these eight days of Chanukah to thank and praise Your great name.”

No mention here of miraculous oil, or an eight day miracle. Rather, the prayer describes a victory in battle against the Greeks and the Hellenists, guided by God and through His deliverance. But no miracle is explicitly stated.

What is the relationship between these two sources? On the one hand the Gemara talks exclusively of a miracle involving the oil; on the other hand, the prayer ignores this and discusses the battle and the victory.

To put the question slightly differently, for which miracle was the festival established, for what are we to praise God on Chanukah – for the oil or the war?

High Menorahs and Deep Pits

The Gemara continues and presents two passages in succession that are seemingly unrelated. When examined they shed light on the question of these two ‘miracles’ and the nature and necessity of miracles in general.

“Rav Cahana said that Rav Natan bar Minyomi explained in the name of Rav Tanchum; a Chanukah light placed higher than twenty amot is disqualified.

Rav Cahana said that Rav Natan bar Minyomi explained in the name of Rav Tanchum; why does it say ‘the pit was empty there was no water in it’ (BeReishit 37:24)? As it says that the pit was empty can I not deduce that there was no water in it? Why does it say that there was no water? There was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions” (Shabbat 21b-22a).

This passage from the Gemara is strange in that it seems to juxtapose two apparently unrelated pieces of talmudic logic and literature. The Gemara places a law concerning the maximum height allowed for the Chanukah menorah, next to an exegesis on the nature of the well that Joseph’s brothers threw him into.

What is the connection between these two parts of the Gemara’s discussion, and what is the relevance of Joseph and his story to the laws and description of Chanukah?

There are a number of answers to this question, the most obvious being a practical one. The Gemara is called the Oral Law, the Torah SheBe’al Peh. Originally it was transmitted from rabbi to student orally. The entire body of writing that constitutes the Talmud had to be passed on orally and, therefore, committed to memory. The rabbis were obviously anxious to ease this process, and so they devised methods to make it as effortless as possible.

Here, then, is a classic example of the way the editors of the Gemara sought to make it easier for the learner. The first statement, the one describing the height of the chanukiah is brought in the names of Rav Cahana, Rav Natan bar Minyomi and Rav Tanchum. As this threesome has already been mentioned in connection with Chanukah, the rabbis added another statement in their name, that concerning the pit. A sort of rabbinic two for the price of one.

However, there is a deeper explanation that can be given for the connection between these two statements that also sheds light on the question of the real miracle of Chanukah as well.

A chanukah light cannot be placed higher than twenty amot in the air. An ama is the distance between one’s elbow and the tips of the fingers, about half a metre. So if one were to place chanukah lights more than ten metres from the ground this would not fulfil the obligation to light chanukah lights

The reason for this is that we light the Chanukah lights to publicise the miracle. In order to do so, the lights must be clearly visible to both the lighter and the casual observer. If the lights are placed too high, they are disqualified as they do not serve their purpose. They cannot be seen and do not, therefore, publicise the miracle.

The lights must be visible as they symbolise the miracle of the oil. But as we have already seen, this was not the only miracle of Chanukah. In addition to the oil there was another miracle, that of the victory in battle and in the cultural struggle of the Jews.

The rabbis explained that Yosef was thrown into a pit that appeared to be empty, but that really contained snakes and scorpions. Why did the rabbis decide that these particular animals inhabited the pit?

It seems that the rabbis were alluding to another passage in the Gemara that discusses witnesses who came and claimed that they saw a man die. This is significant as if the man really died, and this information can be verified, then his wife is a widow and can remarry. However, if he is not definitely dead then his wife cannot remarry.

The Gemara discusses cases where the witnesses did not actually see him die, but saw him in a situation that we can assume would lead to death.

“If he fell into a pit of lions, they cannot give witness that he definitely died, but, if he fell into a pit of snakes and scorpions, they can give witness that he is dead” (Yevamot 121a1 ). Rashi explains the difference between lions and snakes and scorpions that lions only attack when they are hungry, but snakes and scorpions attack even when unprovoked. It is possible, therefore, that someone would fall into a pit of lions and survive, but if he fell into a pit of snakes and scorpions, then he would definitely die.

If so, then the fact that Yosef survived this ordeal was a miracle. He should have died in the pit, but lived through direct Divine intervention. If we look at all of Yosef’s ordeal in getting to Egyptand rising there to a position of influence and power, it was all miraculous. The fact that a simple Jewish lad should be taken out of prison and elevated to the Vice-President of the world super-power of the day indicates to us a Divine hand in his affairs.

So both Chanukah and the story of Yosef contain a common element. They both include two miracles; the lights and the war in the case of Chanukah, and the survival from the deadly pit and political success in the case of Yosef.

Two Different Types of Miracle

These two groups of miracles are identical in one important aspect. The miracle of the lights is a revealed, open miracle, whereas the miracle of winning the war is a natural miracle. Were it not for the fact that we believe God was behind these events we could easily dismiss the victory as a matter of course, a coincidence or a fluke. There have been other occasions in history when a small army successfully fought back a mighty power. It usually happens the other way round, but that does not yet make it into a miracle.

The same with Yosef and his miracles. In light of what we learnt about the nature of snakes and scorpions, his salvation from the pit was indeed miraculous and unnatural. On the other hand, the fact that he went from slave and prisoner to great statesman is unusual, but by no means supernaturally miraculous.

So both Chanukah and the story of Yosef contain a supernatural miracle coupled with a natural event that we perceive as being Divinely inspired. This now explains the connection between the two passages in the Gemara that follow each other, that of Chanukah and that of Yosef’s pit.

But what of the relationship between these two different types of miracles?

Who Needs Miracles Anyway?

There is an interesting story and subsequent discussion in the Gemara. The rabbis wrote that “There was a case of a man whose wife died leaving him a son to nurse. He did not have enough money to pay a wet-nurse, a miracle occurred and he grew breasts and breast-fed his son.

Rav Yosef said ‘Come and see how great this man was that such a miracle happened for him.’ Abaye said ‘On the contrary, how bad it was that the natural ordered had to be changed for him’” (Shabbat 53b).

The two opinions in the Gemara do not necessarily disagree on the need for miracles. They both hold that miracles are generally superfluous and undesirable, as they require a change in the natural order. This change is not something to be encouraged and we would prefer natural events that hold no need for such supernatural happenings. The first opinion is stressing the fact that if someone did have a miracle performed on their behalf, then they must have deserved it and have been a special individual.

According to this, doing without miracles is to be preferred to a miraculous event. Better to do without miracles than to get to a situation where a miracle is needed to save the day.

In the light of this let us examine the miracles of Chanukah and Yosef. God performed a great miracle on Chanukah. The oil that should only have lasted for one day lasted for eight. But was this miracle really necessary? In fact it was not. God could have designed the events differently, and the Maccabees could have found eight jugs of oil and not one. This would have been miraculous enough, and would not have forced God to change nature and make the oil last for so long, eight times its natural capacity.

The same can be said of Yosef’s miraculous delivery from the pit of snakes and scorpions. Would it have been so difficult to arrange that he fell into a pit that contained other, less lethal animals. Why did Yosef have to be thrown into a pit of snakes and scorpions demanding a supernatural miracle of salvation?

The answer to both these questions is the same. Both the pious Jews of the Chanukah story and Yosef needed the miracle. Both were figures in a larger drama that was controlled by God, but they were both uncertain whether this was the case. How did the Maccabees fighting the Greeks and the Hellenists know that God was on their side, and not of that of the Hellenists themselves? How did Yosef know that God was with him and supported his claim against the brothers? Maybe the brothers were right and he was just a dreamer.

In such cases God appeared to ensure the key players that their paths were correct, to show them that they had Divine backing and consent. God performed a revealed miracle to show that He was there.

When the Maccabees entered the defiled Templeafter a physically exhausting and emotionally draining battle they needed a boost. The miracle of the oil came to show them that God had directed the battle that preceded the miracle. When Yosef survived the ordeal of the snake and scorpion infested pit, he realised this as a sign from God. God had ensured Yosef that He was to be with him in all the subsequent adventures and trials.

The miracles were not at all superfluous; rather, they came at an opportune moment in history to give a message. The miracles did not only come to save and help, they came to encourage and strengthen the people’s resolve.

If we look around at our personal and national lives we are also witnesses to miraculous events. Mostly we write these off as natural events. Children are born, trees and plants grow, life continues. The Jewish people survive yet another attack and win another battle. Occasionally we take note of supernatural occurrences; a couple has a baby after several years’ attempting to do so, people are healed miraculously. The same is true on a national level. The fact that both the United Statesand the Soviet Unionvoted for the establishment of the State of Israel in the United Nations on the 29th of November, 1947was a sign of the hand of God in the Zionist dream. So was the phenomenal victory in the Six-Day War in 1967. The fact that there were so few casualties, but a huge scale of destruction during the Gulf war of 1991, was also miraculous.

These miraculous events come to enlighten us and ensure us that even though God chooses not to appear daily, He nevertheless ‘runs the show’ from behind the curtain.

The Miracles of Chanukah

There is a famous question posed by the Beit Yosef. “Why was the festival established for eight days, as there was enough oil for one day, the miracle was only for seven days?” (Beit Yosef on Tur, Orach Chayim 670). The oil lasted for eight days, but only seven days were miraculous, as there was sufficient oil for one day to begin with.

There are numerous answers to this question, but we can offer a suggestion based on our discussion here. The truth is that the miracle of the oil was not the only miracle of Chanukah. There was also the miracle of winning the war. The eight days of the festival represent this, seven for the oil and one for the war.

To return to the beginning and our original question, what is the relationship between these two miracles? The oil comes to show God’s hand in history and our destiny, it comes to prove that God was the worker of the miracle of the battle as well. True, to establish a festival we require a supernatural miracle, and therefore the festival was instituted as a result of the miracle of the oil. But it is still fitting that we find time during the festival to thank and praise God for our military victories as well. During our prayers we give thanks for the miracles, specifically the winning of wars.

Chanukah is a time to reflect on miracles, those of war and oil, and miracles in general. We are surrounded by miracles, as individuals and as a nation. Chanukah is a perfect opportunity to recognize them and to remember to thank and praise God for all the miracles, those that we notice as well as those that we tend to take for granted. All of them together teach us that God is intimately involved in our lives and is always there to guide and protect us.