“What is Hanukah? The rabbis taught: ‘On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Hasmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to feed the holy lamp in the sanctuary) and only one vial [or small jar] was found with the seal of the high priest intact’…” (Mishnah Shabbat, ch. 2)
The mention of oil here indicates that it was an essential part of Jewish worship. Why?
The kohanim were to light the menorah in the Temple daily (Ex. 27:21):
“…Aaron and his sons shall keep the lamps burning before the LORD from evening till morning. This is to be a lasting ordinance among the Israelites for the generations to come.”
That also answers the question of why the Makabee’im couldn’t wait for eight days, until proper oil could be delivered to the Temple. Once the Temple had been recaptured, the kohanim — represented in that generation by the Hashmoni’im (Hasmoneans/Makabee’im) — im-mediately had the responsibility to light the lamps daily. Given their zeal, it was also their preference to do so. Doing so further made a statement at once both religious and political.
The fuel for the light had to be oil that had been specially prepared (Ex. 27:20):
“…bring clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling [the 7 lights of the menorah] perpetually [or: regularly (Plaut)].”
How had the Hellenists “defiled” the oil?
By using it for the worship of an idol.
Even if the oil in the jar had been prepared appropriately for Temple use, once even a portion had been misused, the rest became useless for Jewish worship. The jar of oil with “the seal of the High Priest intact” meant that none of the oil in that jar had been used in idol-worship. It was therefore still valid for use in Jewish worship.
The story of Hanukah is taught to every Jewish child from the very beginning of his or her Jewish education.
“Greeks,” or “Hellenists,” conquered the Temple in Jerusalem. During the time that they controlled it, they desecrated it, along with all of its utensils and materials, by using them to make offerings to “foreign” gods – offerings that included animals that Jews were forbidden to use as sacrifices. When the Makabee’im recaptured the Temple:
A single jar
enough to burn
a great miracle
To commemorate the miracle of the oil burning for eight days, we light a “m’norah” in our homes, adding one additional light for each of eight nights.
Among Ashkenazim it’s also customary to eat latkes (fried potato pancakes); Sephardim eat bimuelos (fried honey puffs); Israelis eat “sufganiot” – a kind of deep-fried jelly donut. The oil used in preparing all three is another reminder of the oil in the original miracle. But:
Why was it so important for the Makabee’im to kindle a light in the first place?
Why did it have to be done by burning oil?
Why did it have to be done in the Temple?
These questions, although raised by the Hanukah legend, aren’t often discussed. By not doing so, the Hanukah narrative can seem to “stick out” of Jewish history, apparently disconnected from מתן תורה – the “Giving of Torah” — and B’nai Yisrael’s wandering in the wilderness. Yet, just as Purim has its deepest roots in Torah, in the mitzvah of not “bowing down,” Hanukah too is rooted in Torah-mitzvoth about worship. As such, it’s very much in the flow of Jewish history that begins with מתן תורה, and of which we ourselves are still, today, a part.
In שמות (“Sh’moth;” “Exodus”), the B’nai Yisrael are commanded to make a portable “sanctuary” (Hebrew: מקדש; a “holy” or separated place) for G-d to “dwell among them,” wherever they go. They’re given many explicit directions about how it’s to be built and what it’s to contain, including a lampstand, or “candelabra,” hammered out from a single piece of gold:
25:31 — Make a lampstand of pure gold and hammer it out, base and shaft; its flower-like cups, buds and blossoms shall be of one piece with it.
It is to have a central shaft, with 3 branches extending from each side of it. On top of each branch, including the central shaft, is to be a cup:
25:32 — Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand – three on one side [of the central branch] and three on the other.
25:33 — Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand.
“Lampstand,” in the Hebrew of Torah, is מנורה – “m’norah.” The Israelites were therefore commanded to create a golden menorah with seven branches, a cup on top of each.
The m’norah would be placed inside the “Tent of Meeting,” in the outer of its 2 rooms. Oil was to be placed into each cup, to be burned for light:
25:37 – …they shall light the lamps to give light…
The oil was replenished each day and continually burned, perpetually imparting light.
The portable “sanctuary,” called the “Mishkan,” was later replaced by the First, then the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Within each Temple were “m’noroth” (plural of m’norah) based on the above model. With the rise of synagogues during the Second Temple period, the rabbis, to avoid detracting from the primacy and centrality of the Temple, disallowed exact copies of the m’norah from being displayed in them. Instead, the m’norah was symbolically represented by a light hanging in front of the Ark, never extinguished or turned off, called the נר תמיד – the “perpetual” or “continual” light; sometimes mistakenly called the “eternal” light. In modern synagogues, creative representations of the traditional m’norah have only a decorative, not a ceremonial function, and are lit electrically. Some churches have a light like the נר תמיד, possibly based on the model in Torah and synagogue, hanging in the front of the area used for prayer.
It was one of the m’noroth in the Second Temple (before Herod’s renovation) that the Makabee’im were trying to light. The mitzvah, given in Torah almost 1,000 years earlier, had been performed continuously, save for the 70 years between the First and Second Temples, and also the time of the Syrian-Greek occupation.
Torah likewise required that only olive oil be used to produce the light:
25:6 — …olive oil for the light…
27:20 – and you [Mosheh] will command the children of Israel to bring to you pure, beaten olive oil for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.
The Soncino Chumash (quoting Avraham ibn Ezra and the Rashbam) notes that “[Supplying] this oil was to remain a public duty for all generations” – i.e. including that of the Makabee’im.
What’s more, this service of lighting the lamps was to be done by “Aharon and his sons” – the Kohanim – of whom the Makabee’im were among the descendants in their own generation.
27:21 – In the Tent of Meeting…Aharon and his sons shall set it in order, to burn from evening to morning before the L-rd; it shall be a statute forever throughout their generations on behalf of the B’nai Israel.
In במדבר (“BaMidbar;” “Numbers”), it’s further specified that the Kohanim are to arrange the wicks in the oil-cups, so that the area in front of the m’norah will be lit:
8:1 – When you [Aharon; later required of other Kohanim] set up the seven lamps, they are to light the area in front of the lampstand.
This was therefore a clearly defined mitzvah that was intended to be performed daily. Excluded from the Temple service by the actions of the Syrian-Greeks, the Makabee’im were eager to fulfill their duty and reinstate the ancient practice of keeping the m’norah lit every day with a continual supply of pure, beaten olive oil, just as Aharon had done 1,000 years earlier.
A famous midrash points out that the above follows a series of passages about donations given by the tribal princes among the B’nai Yisrael. Aharon, says the midrash, was saddened that he could make no such gift to the Mishkan (which was completed on Kislev 25 – the day that would in the future begin the eight days of Hanukah). G-d comforts him, saying that his offering, arranging the wicks, will be perpetual, unlike the one-time gifts of the princes. The Ramban (R. Mosheh b. Nachman; “Nachmanides”) further says that this mitzvah is really prophetic of the time when Aharon’s “sons” – the Makabee’im – would relight the m’norah.
To unite Hanukah with its basis in Torah, is to raise our attention from a single historical moment to the Silence that precedes the whole revelation of the Divine Presence. The Divine Revelation that begins with Creation itself, and culminates in מתן תורה – the “Giving of Torah” – continues, its intense brilliance unabated, into each split second of our own lives, and ahead, into an endless future. Our attention so raised, we see that the miracle of Hanukah is but one in an infinite ocean of miracles; one star among countless galaxies of stars. Whenever that revelation seems in danger of being darkened by our simple unawareness of it, it bursts forth again, like lighting a m’norah in a darkened room. Then, we know our own lives to be filled with miracles and eternal Silence, no less than were the lives of the Makabee’im, when one day’s worth of oil burned for 8 days.