Efrat, Israel — Why do we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days instead of seven? After all, the miracle of the cruse of oil began only on the second day, once the cruse would have emptied itself of its contents. Therefore, one reasonably might have assumed that the Hanukkah festival should celebrate the seven days during which the oil miraculously burned. What is it about the first day that also merits celebration?
From this question, made famous by the Beit Yosef (Rabbi Joseph Karo, 16th Century Spain, Turkey, and Israel) comes a profound insight from my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z”l, which will enable us to understand why the first day is an essential component of the celebration.
In contrast to Rashi, who asked why the Bible begins with the story of the creation of the cosmos and not with the first commandment to the Jewish People in Exodus 12:1-2, Rabbi Soloveitchik sees the first commandment of the Bible in the story of the creation of the world itself. After all, a central principle of the Bible is the command to “walk in [God’s] ways”, to act in accordance with Divine Attributes:
“Just as [God] is merciful, so must we be merciful, just as [God] is compassionate, so must we be compassionate…” [Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 133b].
Rabbi Soloveitchik continued that, similarly, since God created the world, we, too, must emulate that creativity. We, too, must create. And since the first creation of the Almighty, at the place of the abyss of the darkness of the deep, was light [Gen. 1:3], so, too, must the vocation of the Jewish People be to go to places of darkness and bring light. This is the meaning of “perfecting the world” (tikkun olam), the Divine mandate to Israel to be “a light unto the nations.”
Rabbi Moshe Prager, long-time editor of Beis Yaakov magazine, wrote of a young boy in Auschwitz who became Bar Mitzvah on the first day of Hanukkah. The boy painstakingly collected scraps of oil to craft a makeshift “candle,” and invited a small group to celebrate with him. In the blackness of the night, these brave, holy Jews huddled together to watch the Bar Mitzvah boy light the candle, recite the blessings and join with him in the traditional Hanukkah songs. Just as they were beginning to feel themselves transported to an almost forgotten time of joyousness, a Nazi guard entered the room where they had gathered, shot into the air, and barked at the youth at the center of the forbidden activity to extinguish the candle. The child, recognizing that his fate was sealed, looked unwaveringly into the eyes of the Nazi: “We Jews do not extinguish light. We make light.” Inexplicably, the Nazi guard turned and strode out without a word. From the midst of the most devastating darkness can sometimes emerge the brightest light.
Indeed, the Jewish mission is to bring God’s light to the world, banishing the darkness that perpetually threatens to overwhelm God’s creation. This is the meaning behind the miracle of the light of Hanukkah: we must add our light to God’s initial light from the time of creation, when the darkness of Hellenism, a pagan culture of Man (and not God) as the measure of all things, and beauty rather than truth as the highest good, was threatening to destroy our Holy Temple. The extra light of the Menorah—“For the candle is the commandment and the Torah is light.” [Prov. 6:23]—overwhelmed the darkness and re-established Torah rule for 200 years!
Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (18th Century Lithuania), popularly known as the Vilna Gaon, notes that the twenty-fifth word of the Bible is ohr (light), in the verse, “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ (Gen. 1:3).” When we consider that the military victory of Hanukkah takes place on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, and that Hanukkah is known by the Book of the Maccabees and the Second Commonwealth historian, Josephus, as the Festival of Lights—Hag Ha’Urim—the Vilna Gaon’s keen observation is nothing less than startling.
All of this beautifully explains why the celebration of Hanukkah includes the first day of the festival, as well. In fact, it is on that date, 25 Kislev, the first day of Hanukkah, when we are reminded anew that we must add our own light to the existing Divine light in order to perfect the imperfect, incomplete world that God has charged us with perfecting and completing. Ba’yamim ha’heim, ba’zman ha’zeh, as it was in those days, so, too, in ours.