Of all of the Festivals and Holy Days in the Jewish calendar, Chanukah is the one most surrounded in mystery.
When the Sages introduce us to this Rabbinic Yom Tov, they begin with the question:
What is Chanukah?
In other words, what does Chanukah mean, and why do we celebrate it?
Yet, the explanation that follows just leaves us with even more questions about the Festival of Lights:
מַאי חֲנוּכָּה? דְּתָנוּ רַבָּנַן: בְּכ״ה בְּכִסְלֵיו יוֹמֵי דַחֲנוּכָּה תְּמָנְיָא… שֶׁכְּשֶׁנִּכְנְסוּ יְווֹנִים לַהֵיכָל טִמְּאוּ כׇּל הַשְּׁמָנִים שֶׁבַּהֵיכָל. וּכְשֶׁגָּבְרָה מַלְכוּת בֵּית חַשְׁמוֹנַאי וְנִצְּחוּם, בָּדְקוּ וְלֹא מָצְאוּ אֶלָּא פַּךְ אֶחָד שֶׁל שֶׁמֶן שֶׁהָיָה מוּנָּח בְּחוֹתָמוֹ שֶׁל כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל, וְלֹא הָיָה בּוֹ אֶלָּא לְהַדְלִיק יוֹם אֶחָד. נַעֲשָׂה בּוֹ נֵס וְהִדְלִיקוּ מִמֶּנּוּ שְׁמוֹנָה יָמִים. לְשָׁנָה אַחֶרֶת קְבָעוּם וַעֲשָׂאוּם יָמִים טוֹבִים בְּהַלֵּל וְהוֹדָאָה
What is Hanukkah? Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah… For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein. When the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they searched and found only one jar of oil that was lying about with the seal of the Kohen Gadol, and it had in it only enough to light for one day. A miracle was done within it, and they lit from it for eight days. The following year these [days] were established and rendered Yomim Tovim with Hallel and thanksgiving
Many commentators ask why we celebrate Chanukah for eight days, since it seems that no miracle occurred on the first day, only on the subsequent seven days.
Other commentators wonder why or how the Sages of the Gemara determined that the primary miracle involved the jar of oil that stayed lit for 8 days. What about the improbable victory of the outrageously out-numbered, unarmed and untrained Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek army– one of the world’s strongest military forces? Why is the miraculous military victory seemingly ignored in this Gemara; yet the Sages saw it fit to highlight it in the Al Hanissim prayer?
Moreover, why did the Sages wait a full year before establishing the festival of Chanukah? Why not declare it right away?
Finally, why is Chanukah the only holiday that is specifically connected to the concept of hoda’ah, thanksgiving and gratitude?
Understanding The Story Behind the Miracle of Chanukah
In order to answers these questions, we need a little background…
The Hellenist rule over Israel lasted for a total of 180 years during the time of the Second Beis HaMikdash. It began in 334BCE with the arrival and later conquest of Alexander the Great in the Middle East.
Jewish life both within the Land of Israel and abroad was heavily influenced by Greek culture and language. Many Jews were drawn to the Hellenistic lifestyle which celebrated intellectual, artistic and physical achievement– pursuits that were devoid of spiritual meaning or connection. A prevailing argument of the time was that a Jew could be culturally Greek, but remain spiritually a Jew.
After the death of Alexander the Great, the lands of the Middle East were divided among different rulers. In 200 BCE, the Syrian King Antiochus III acquired the Land of Israel in a battle with King Ptolemy of Egypt, and Israel was annexed to his empire. The Jewish people at that time were initially allowed to continue living “according to their ancestral customs” and to continue to perform the daily service in the Beis HaMikdash.
But the permissiveness of the Syrian-Greek rulers eventually gave way to oppression. In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the son of Antiochus III, invaded the Holy Land. Antiochus IV, who was also nicknamed “the Madman” was a violent, power-hungry egomaniac. When he arrived on the scene, the situation began to deteriorate.
Antiochus sought to impose Greek culture even further on his Jewish subjects. He removed the righteous Kohen Gadol, Yochanan, from the Beis HaMikdash, an outspoken opponent of the Greek influence on daily life. In his place, he installed a member of the Hellenist party, Yochanan’s own brother Joshua, known by the Greek name, Jason. Under Jason’s watch, a gymnasium was built in Jerusalem right next to the Temple Mount and many other such structures were scattered throughout the land.
In 167 BCE, in a fit of rage, Antiochus looted and defiled the Beis HaMikdash. He erected an idol of Zeus within the Temple grounds and ordered that pigs to be sacrificed at the outer altar. He also began a campaign to oppress and uproot Judasim through a series of harsh decrees. Shabbos observance, circumcision, and the study of Torah were subsequently outlawed. Those who were caught disobeying these an other decrees were often tortured and put to death, while Torah scrolls and other holy texts were publicly burned.
That same year, a family of Kohanim from the Chasmonean dynasty, also known as the Maccabees, organized a rebellion. With this rebellion, they were actually waging two wars: the well-known one against the Greeks and a lessor known civil war against the Hellenistic Jews who were siding with the Greeks.
Towards the beginning of the rebellion, Yehuda Maccabee led a rag-tag group of unarmed Jewish forces to a miraculous victory over Antiochus’ army and liberated Yerushalayim.
When they entered the Beis HaMikdash, they found everything in a state of disarray and defilement. It all had to be replaced. The Holy Golden Menorah was also missing. It had been melted down by the Greeks.
As they got to work cleaning up, clearing the area of idols and rebuilding the alter from scratch, one of the first things the Chashmonaim did was to build a make-shift menorah out of cheap metal and rigorously search for vials of pure olive oil with the special seal of the Kohan Gadol still intact. In the end, they only found one.
We know the rest of the story…
An obvious and important question at this point is why were the Chashmonaim so in a rush to light the menorah with pure oil?
Some commentators also point out that given the special circumstances, according to halacha they could have lit the menorah with impure oil since the “service of the congregation supersedes the laws of impurity.” (Yoma 6b)
Why did the Chashmonaim exert so much effort to search for a pure jar of oil when they were allowed to light even with impure oil?
An important difference between the first and second Beis HaMikdash was that in the Second Temple, the Shechina, the Divine Presence, was not present in the Kedosh Kedoshim, the Holy of Holies. This place where Hashem “dwelled” among the Jewish people was totally empty throughout the Second Temple period. Even the Ark of the Covenant and the Keruvim were absent. (Yoma 21b)
But, there are two other areas in the First Beis HaMikdash that revealed Hashem’s Presence: the alter in the outer court yard and the menorah. While the Shechina did not rest in the Kedosh Kedoshim or on the outer alter in the second Beis HaMikdash, it did, however, remain with the menorah up until the last 40 years prior to the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash. (Yoma 39b)
This distinction is, in my opinion, very significant.
I heard in the name of Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg, that the real miracle of Chanukah was that the Chashmonaim so intensely yearned to light the menorah that it caused Hashem to create the 8-day miracle which followed.
They yearned to light…
Even after all the years of Hellenistic rule and influence…
Even after acknowledging that the war with the Greeks and their Hellenistic Jewish brothers was far from over…
Even after seeing with their own eyes the defilement of the Beis HaMikdash…
Even after realizing that the menorah was missing and that it could not be properly replaced at that time…
Even after finding just one small jar of ritually pure oil with only enough to last one day…
Even after knowing that they could have just lit with impure oil…
Even after all of this, they didn’t plunge into despair.
They strengthened themselves and immediately lit their insufficient portion of oil on their cheap makeshift menorah in the midst of the Beis HaMikdash that had been so defiled and that now stood empty of the Divine Presence. Because… though they yearned for better, this was the best they could do under the circumstances.
And, it was their choice to nevertheless try to come closer to Hashem with the one vessel that could still reveal His Presence even in the face of such difficult psychological, emotional and ultimately spiritual obstacles that caused Hashem to create the eight day miracle that followed:
…a miracle was done within it [i. e. their intensely strong desire to light]
and they lit from it [this desire] for eight days.
Rav Dessler explains actions in this world have a tremendous impact in the Heavenly realms Above, and the impact “up there” can be vastly greater than what we perceive “down here.” As it says in Midrash Shir HaShirim,
[O]pen for Me an opening of teshuva like the eye of a needle, and I will open for you openings big enough for wagons and carriages to pass through
What this means is that for every bit of effort a person makes in an attempt to come closer to Hashem, Hashem responds with favor and assistance that is exponentially greater. As it says in gemara Yoma 39a: “The one who sanctifies himself a little, Heaven helps to sanctify him a lot.”
In other words, the fact that the menorah stayed lit for eight days was simply a consequence of their intense desire to fulfill their service and draw closer to Hashem.
This then is one answer to the question of why we light for eight days. The first day was a miracle on the part of the Jews themselves. So great was it’s impact Above that Hashem in His abundant love for His children, decided to prolong the light in this world, to match the light they had generated in the spiritual world, the world of truth.
But only on the eight day, Zos Chanukah, was it fully revealed to all present just how far the Jews were able to get spiritually from that initial “small opening of teshuva like the eye of a needle.”
For this reason, the Sages decided to wait a year before designating the holiday of Chanukah.
Right after the Chashmonaim reclaimed the Yerushalayim and the Beis Hamikdash, and the eight-day miracle occurred, the Jewish people engaged in a communal re-dedication of themselves to Hashem and His Torah. This is alluded to in the word “Chanukah” means “dedication.”
The Sages waited a full year before they declared Chanukah a festival because they wanted to see whether the impact of this initial yearning for Hashem on behalf of the Jewish nation as a whole, was lasting.
The miracle of Chanukah thus came to completion the following year, and in a sense, every successive Zos Chanukah is an even higher completion of the miracle then the ones that proceeded it.
For this we are thankful. The lights of Chanukah are the result of the intense desire to serve Hashem even where that service is inadequate. We are reminded year after year that the darkness of this world is really an illusion… that every effort we make to come closer to Hashem and our true selves creates an unfathomable light that never, ever leaves us– even if we don’t see it at the time.
Working backwards, our Sages tell us that the main miracle of Chanukah involved the menorah, the single jar of oil, and the choice made by the Chashmonoim to light it in the way that they did. The miraculous military victories thus set the stage and created the necessary circumstances so the Chashmonoim could enter the Beis HaMikdash and find only one jar of oil, and choose not to despair.
Chanukah is an expression of HaShem’s love for us. We yearn here in this world, and it created a spiritual shalamis we couldn’t have done ourselves in the Next World. We light the menorah to remind ourselves that even when things are dark and confusing, those moments when we are at the lowest points, if we strengthen ourselves and do what we can, even the smallest seemingly insufficient thing, the resulting light will far outshine the effort we put in.
A little light expels a great deal of darkness.