The chanukah oil

December 29, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple writes on Chanukah…

Rabbi Raymond Apple


It is the most famous jar of oil in Jewish history.

When the Maccabees came to rededicate the Temple, there was only one jar of pure oil bearing the seal of the high priest.

It would take eight days to obtain a fresh supply. But in an act of faith the one jar was poured into the menorah, and by a miracle the small quantity stretched over eight days.

This is the story, but it is not without its problems.

* Why did the high priest not certify larger quantities of oil, enabling each day’s supply to be poured into the menorah but leaving enough available for several more days?

The Chida, Rabbi Chayyim Yosef David Azulay, suggests that it must have been customary to produce the oil in one-day quantities, presumably to guard against contamination.

* Why did it take so long to obtain a fresh supply?

The oil was prepared several days’ journey out of Jerusalem, so it took four days to get to there and four days back.

* Why do we celebrate the miracle for eight days when the stretching of the one day’s supply lasted only seven days?

There are many answers. It was already a miracle that one day’s supply was found. The strengthening of the quality of the oil already began on the first day.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, editor of the Shulchan Aruch (Bet Yosef to Orach Chayyim 670), suggests that the supply in the one jar was divided into eight from the beginning, allowing at least a brief amount to be burnt each day.

According to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, the people could not rely on a miracle providing more oil because that would not be olive oil but some miraculous substance, and it was olive oil that the law required.

In a medieval version of the story the one jar that was found did not even contain enough for one day (“afilu yom echad”), so even the first day was a miracle.

Another view is that there were two miracles: on the first day it was the miracle of the conquest of the enemy, whilst thereafter it was the miracle of the oil.

* Why do we see apparent similarities with the 8-day festival of Sukkot?

In some ways Chanukah compensated for the people’s inability to celebrate Sukkot properly that year. The Talmud already noticed a link between the two occasions (Shabbat 21b).

Apart from keeping Chanukah for eight days, there is a Sukkot connection in the reciting of Hallel. The Second Book of Maccabees recognises the link.


AL HANISSIM – thanksgiving prayer for the Chanukah miracle; inserted in the Amidah and Grace After Meals.

ANTIOCHUS – Syrian Greek ruler called Epiphanes (“glorious”) by his admirers and Epimanes (“madman“) by his detractors.

BET HILLEL & BET SHAMMAI – rival schools of thought: Bet Shammai ruled that Chanukah lights should begin with 8 and reduce each night by one; Bet Hillel ruled the opposite.

BOOKS OF MACCABEES – part of the Apocrypha (works excluded from the Bible); disparaged by the Talmudic rabbis because these books did not promote Jewish spirituality and learning.

CHANUKAH – “dedication”; name refers to the reconsecration of the Temple.

CHANUKAH GELT – Chanukah money given to children; reflects the institution of Jewish coinage as a mark of independence.

CHANUKIYYAH – 9-branched candelabrum for the Chanukah lights (see Menorah).

CHRISTIANITY – honoured the Maccabean martyrs and incorporated the Books of Maccabees into their version of the Scriptures.

DOUGHNUTS (also ponchkes or sufganiyyot) – one of several Chanukah foods fried in oil (recalling the Chanukah miracle).

DREIDEL (also trendel or sevivon) – a top used in Chanukah games; the 4 sides bear the letters “nun-gimel-hei-shin”, standing for “nes gadol hayah sham” (“a great miracle happened there”); the game uses the letters as the numbers 50-3-5-300; though Judaism generally condemns gambling, the rule was relaxed on Chanukah whilst the lights were burning.

HAFTAROT – on Shabbat Chanukah the haftarah is Zechariah 2:27-4:7 with the message “Not by might or power but by My Name”; if there is a 2nd Shabbat the haftarah is I Kings 7:40-50 dealing with the dedication of the 1st Temple.

HALLEL – festive psalms of praise recited each day of Chanukah as on Sukkot (q.v.).

HANNAH & HER 7 SONS – Hannah watched her sons martyred by the Syrian Greeks.

HASMONEANS – the Maccabean family, called Chashmona’im by Josephus (q.v.) after a minor site in Judea or the great-great-grandfather of Judah.

HELLENISM – the spread of Greek culture amongst Jews; criticised by the sages when it meant paganism and immorality; Jews are expected to know when to withdraw from the ways of the environment.

JOSEPHUS – historian who describes the removal of the Temple Menorah to Rome where it was depicted on the Arch of Titus; the first to call Chanukah the Festival of Lights.

JUDAH (JUDAS) MACCABEE – leader of the Maccabee (s.v.) brothers.

KISLEV – month in which Chanukah falls (some say Chanukah = “chanu kah”, “they encamped on the 25th (of Kislev)”).

LATKES – potato pancakes fried in oil; eaten on Chanukah to recall the miracle of the oil.

MACCABEES – nickname of Judah and his brothers; means “hammer” or “extinguisher”; possibly the initials of “Mi kamocha ba’elim HaShem”, “Who is like you among the gods, O Lord?”.

MA’OZ TZUR (“Fortress, Rock”) – Chanukah hymn by Mordechai, the letters of whose name open each verse; it is not certain that a 6th verse referring to Christian persecution was in the original text; the popular melody is from a German folksong.

MATTITYAHU (Mattathias) – a kohen from Modin, father of the Maccabee brothers; his call was “Whoever is on the Lord’s side, rally to me!” (Ex. 32:26).

MEGILLAT ANTIOCHUS (“Scroll of Antiochus”) – a medieval account of the Maccabean period; of uncertain authorship; not highly regarded as history or literature; emphasises the military struggle and not the spiritual dimension.

MEHADRIN (“Beautifiers”) – pietists who are scrupulous about how they kindle the Chanukah lights; now used for those who are strict about their religious conduct; those who are even more scrupulous are called “Mehadrin min hamehadrin”.

MENORAH (“light”) – 7-branched lampstand in the Temple; the 9-branched version on Chanukah symbolises the oil that lasted eight days; the characteristic symbol on ancient Jewish coins and tombs; renewed as part of the Israeli coat of arms.

MORDECHAI – author of Ma’oz Tzur; possibly Mordechai ben Yitzchak, 14th cent., who wrote the Sabbath table hymn Mah Yafit.

NER TAMID – Eternal Light (see Menorah).

OIL – the Maccabees found only one day’s supply of pure oil for the Eternal Light, which lasted until a fresh supply could be prepared (Talmud Shabbat 21b); though this seems to reduce the miracle to seven days, finding the one jar of oil was also a miracle; oil is preferred for the Chanukah lights but candles are acceptable.

PIRSUMEI NISSA (“publicising the miracle”) – the reason for placing the Chanukah lights a prominent place; today many groups kindle the lights in public squares or streets.

PSALM 30 (“A Psalm at the Dedication of the House”) – recited on Chanukah.

RABBINIC MITZVOT – 7 practices (including Chanukah lights) introduced by the sages in the spirit of the Torah (Deut. 17:8-11); each is regarded as a Divine commandment. Other examples are Megillat Esther on Purim and the recital of Hallel on festivals.

SHAMMASH (“servant”) – 9th light used to kindle the others since no “profane” use may be made of the official 8 lights; rabbinic tradition calls the Jewish people the ethical shammash of the world since Isaiah calls Israel “a light unto the nations”.

SUKKOT – commonalities with Chanukah include lights, songs, processions and 8-day duration; in the last year of the war Sukkot was postponed until Kislev (II Maccabees) and some traces of Sukkot remained as the basis for the Chanukah commemoration.

TALMUD – there is no tractate about Chanukah but the lights are mentioned in several places; the sages opposed any emphasis on the political and military events.

URIM (“lights”) – the Chanukah lights are lit at home (and also in the synagogue because the house of worship was central to the story); the lights should burn for at least half an hour, and longer on Friday when they are lit before the Shabbat candles.
Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

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