Allen S. Maller
Allen S. Maller

The Hanukah miracle was only seven days said Rabbi Joseph Caro

Rabbi Yosef Karo posed a question concerning why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days when the miracle was only for seven days (since there was enough oil for one day).

It is a good question. One might say that there were two miracles connected to the Hanukah lights. One, the oil lasted seven days longer than everyone expected. Second, they were willing to begin without being afraid of failure. Or one might say there were two miracles: one of fight and sacrifice and one of hope and faith.

Pesikta Rabbati, a collection of midrashim compiled in the ninth to tenth centuries, relates a very old midrash that very few Jews know today. When the Hasmoneans entered the desecrated Temple, they discovered eight iron rods (Syrian military banners). Into these, they carved grooves, filled the grooves with unconsecrated oil, and then kindled wicks in the oil. (piska 2:1)

The eight iron bars referred to in the above midrash were the military standards [iron poles with a wooden or cloth painted banner on top] that each legion proudly marched out into battle with. By carving grooves in them, filling the grooves with unconsecrated olive oil; and nightly setting the eight oil soaked banners afire, the iron bar military standards were symbolically transformed into Menorahs; objects of sacred Jewish rituals.

According to this midreahic tradition, the eight days of Hanukkah honor the beginning of the cleansing and re-consecration of the Temple; that was finished eight days later when the consecrated oil for continually burning lamp was re-lite.

The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) presents three levels of kindling the oil/candles: The basic practice is only one light each night per household. A better practice is to light one light each night for each member of the household. The most preferred practice is to vary the number of lights each night by adding (Hillel) or by subtracting (Shammai). The opportunity to kindle the lights in three different ways was appealing to the Reform Jews of that era.

Also during most Jewish holidays, observant Jews have to abide by the same rules they do on Shabbat (Saturdays): no work, restricted use of technology, etc but these rules do not apply to Hanukkah. The only ritual obligation on Hanukkah is lighting the candles on the menorah for each of the holiday’s eight nights; the centerpiece of the holiday. This makes Hanukah a very popular celebration among non-Orthodox Jews in general.

Perhaps this is why John’s Gospel reports that Jesus regularly traveled to Jerusalem during the Jewish pilgrimage festivals, thus affirming his Jewish identity and continuity with his Jewish heritage. Although this Gospel focuses on the two major biblical pilgrimage festivals of Passover (Pesach) and Tabernacles (Sukkot), it also reports that Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Festival of Dedication — Hanukah.“The Festival of Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in Solomon’s portico” (John 10:22-23).

Another easing of orthodox practice is reflected in the permission to use a dreidel, the “spinning top” used in a game frequently played during the eight day festivities. Hanukkah was one of the few times during the year that rabbis permitted Jewish participation in games of chance. The four sides of the dreidel contain four Hebrew letters. The letters of the dreidel were seen to stand for the first letter of each word in the Hebrew phrase “Neis gadol hayah sham” which is translated “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the shin is often replaced by a pey, changing the statement to read “A great miracle happened here.”

In 63 BCE, 105 years after the Hasmonean revolt began, the Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom come to an end, because of a political rivalry between two rival brothers Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, both of whom appealed to the Roman Republic to intervene and settle the power struggle on their behalf.

The Roman general Pompey was dispatched to the area, and decided to occupy Judea for the Romans. Twelve thousand Jews died in the Roman siege of Jerusalem. The Priests of the Holy Temple are struck down at the Temple Altar and Rome annexed Judea. Thus, five brothers helped free Judea from Syrian domination; and one hundred years later two brothers helped Rome annex Judea.

In the following centuries, the rabbis diligently worked to shift the lesson of Hanukah from celebrating a military victory. to celebrating the spiritual victory of hope over despair, by among other things, covering over the Pesikta Rabbati 2:1 midrash with the Talmud’s oil story; and using a phrase from the biblical Book of Zechariah that is always chanted during the Shabbat service that falls during Hanukkah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit…”

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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