- Torah Insights
- No comments
The festival of Chanukah is about light and darkness, but there are some gray areas in the story—overlooked details—that when examined closely, may change how we view the famous event.
The Talmud records the story as follows: “Only a single container of oil, still sealed by the High Priest, was found. It had enough oil to last one day. A miracle occurred and this oil burned for eight days.” How exactly this single jar allowed for “eight days of burning” is never quite spelled out.
Surprisingly, there are varying opinions which can be divided into three main categories.
Let’s begin with the background. After the military victory, the Jewish people went to work restoring the temple, removing idols, cleaning and finally resuming the daily routine. Part of that service was lighting the menorah. This procedure entailed preparing the seven lamps each day by pouring oil from the jar into the lamps. But they could only find one jar and it would take eight days to get more oil—so what happened then?
One view, cited by the Beit Yosef, involves a wondrous expansion in the quantity of oil. Either after pouring, the amount of oil within the jar never diminished. Alternatively, the entire jar was emptied into the lamps, yet after burning an entire night, the lamps were found full the next morning. The commentaries point to a similar occurrence with miraculous jug of oil, found in the stories of Elisha (Kings II, 4) and Elijah the prophet (Kings I, 17).
An alternative explanation understands the supernatural occurrence to be in the quality of the oil. In other words, oil that should have lasted for only one day suddenly had more power. As a result, each day only an eighth of the oil was consumed. (Either they poured an eighth of oil from the jar into the lamps; or they poured the entire jar, as usual, but each night only an eighth was consumed.)
Miracle, but no Mitzvah:
There are a number of difficulties with both approaches. The basic critique points to the biblical command to light the menorah: “And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting… (Ex. 27:20)” The wording of the verse leads the Talmud to derive the laws of lighting.” Among these requirements are that the oil must be crushed—a product of human labor—and that a sufficient amount should be placed in the lamps to allow them to burn “from evening until morning.”
If so, the early legal commentators explain that according to the first version that the oil miraculously increased in quantity, the new “miracle oil” would automatically negate the mitzvah due to the oil specifications. According to the version of quality—only an eighth burned—another problem exists: from the second day onward, the lamps would not have enough oil.
These technicalities prompt a third explanation which maintains the miracle while also meeting all requirements of the command. In this scenario, the lamps were discovered to be full each day, not because the oil miraculously replenished, nor because the oil changed composition. Rather, the oil was natural and fire burned from it. Yet at the same time, the heat of the flames did not deplete the oil. This unique category of “paradoxical miracles” is reminiscent of “the burning bush” which “burned without being consumed.”
Beyond Logical Boundaries:
The simultaneous existence of two opposites—burning without consumption— stems from the quality of the Creator which Maimonides and Jewish philosophers term “unbound by logical contradictions.”
[A similar application is cited regarding the mystery of the Ark of the Covenant, about which the Talmud states: “the ark’s space could not be measured.” On the one hand, there were definite dimensions— create “an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height.” One the other hand, this ark took up no physical space when it was placed within the Holy of Holies. The common theme in both miracles is that human action within a certain confinement invites a dimension beyond all limitation.]
There are practical differences between the three ways of explaining the story: In the first version, the miracle is a one-time event—instantly occurring when the oil increases, but once the quantity of oil is replenished, the oil burns naturally. In such a case, someone watching the burning lamps would not detect any supernatural feat. In the second scenario—where the properties of oil change and a small amount lasts longer— the effects of the new oil can be seen during the burning process. The miracle itself, however, already took place before the lighting.
The version of simultaneous opposites is unique because there is an ongoing miracle; the oil defies nature each and every second, burning yet not consumed. Of all categories of miracles, this is the most spectacular. Fittingly, it came in response to the Jewish struggle to maintain faith and defy a Greek culture where nature and logic reigned supreme. Each night of Chanukah, we are reminded of this most magnificent miracle, the bigger story hidden within those flames.