25 Answers for Chanukah

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Chanukah is less an orphan holiday than Shavuos but it still received little attention in ancient rabbinic literature. Lacking classical texts — the books of Maccabees are outside the Jewish canon and the Talmud discusses the holiday only briefly — contemporary rabbis have to be creative in crafting discussion material for the holiday. Sermons and lectures generally focus on the limited topics of the “Al Ha-Nissim” prayer, the Rambam’s description of the holiday and minutia of candle lighting. One issue that has captured rabbinic imagination is what has become known as “the Beis Yosef’s question.”

R. Yosef Karo, in his Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 670), asks why we celebrate Chanukah for eight days. According to the Talmudic explanation of the holiday (Shabbos 21b), when the Jews reconquered the Temple they found a single, sealed bottle of pure oil that would last for only a day but miraculously lasted for eight days until more pure oil could be manufactured and delivered. R. Karo asks why we celebrate Chanukah for eight days, since no miracle occurred on the first — only on the subsequent seven days.

R. Karo offers three answers to this question but subsequent thinkers have challenged them and offered alternatives. His is the question that launched a thousand sermons. In 1962, R. Yerachmiel Zelcer published his Ner Le-Me’ah, a collection of 100 answers to the Beis Yosef’s question. Many of the answers are similar and some do not withstand scrutiny, which R. Zelcer is quick to point out. They occasionally enter esoteric topics such as the purity of utensils and sacrificial rites, and frequently offer unsupported historical speculations. Yet the true joy of the book is the thrust and parry of proofs and counterproofs, the debates spanning centuries into which R. Zelcer takes readers, frequently offering his own critiques and insights. I would have written the book differently, focusing less on Chasidic texts and organizing the chapters more topically. Additionally, the 100 chapters do not directly correspond to 100 answers — some have more than one and some have none. However, these are less criticisms than a statement of personal preferences.

What follows are extremely brief summaries of 25 answers from R. Zelcer’s enjoyable book. The first three are offered by the Beis Yosef and the rest by others. I include the chapter number in the book for reference:

  1. They divided the oil into eight parts and used one-eighth each night (ch. 1)
  2. After they filled the menorah each night, the bottle of oil was miraculously refilled (1)
  3. On each morning, they found the menorah refilled with oil (1)
  4. Not all the oil burned the first day so a little would remain on the second, because a blessing/miracle can only impact an existent item – Taz (3)
  5. One day of Chanukah celebrates the military victory – Pri Chadash (4)
  6. The first day commemorates the rededication of the Temple by the Hasmoneans – Shiltei Giborim (5)
  7. The eight days correspond to the eight days of circumcision, which the Greeks outlawed – Sefer Ha-Itim (5)
  8. The receptacles used as a menorah were broken and could not contain a full day’s amount of oil but still miraculously burned for a full day – Maharsha (6)
  9. The first day commemorates the dedication of the Second Temple when it was built – R. Yaakov Emden (7)
  10. Finding the bottle of pure oil was in itself a miracle – Eshkol (8)
  11. The Geonic work She’eiltos has a different version of the Talmudic passage (as it often does) which reads that they did not even have enough oil for one day (although the Netziv argues it is a copyist’s error in the She’eiltos) (9, 17)
  12. There was only enough oil for the first night but the menorah must be lit all day also – Birkei Yosef, Cheishek Shlomo (9)
  13. They were forbidden to extinguish the fire on the morning of the first day in order to conserve oil yet the oil continued burning through the eighth evening – Zayis Ra’anan (10)
  14. The eighth day is celebrated out of doubt, as all holidays are observed outside of Israel – Birkei Yosef, Toldos Ya’akov Yosef (both reject this) (11)
  15. They planned on using multiple wicks dipped in the oil but the original wicks miraculously lasted all day – Chasam Sofer (12)
  16. They lit in the courtyard rather than the inner chamber. The greater wind created a need for more oil – Chasam Sofer (13)
  17. The month of Kislev was short that year but is now long (29 vs. 30 days). We still observe the holiday from 25 Kislev through 2 Teives even though it is now eight days rather than the original seven – Chasam Sofer (14)
  18. On the first day, after they found the bottle with only enough oil for one day, it miraculously became enough for eight days – R. Yaakov of Lissa (15)
  19. There was enough oil for lighting the menorah but not for relighting the western light in the morning, as it was each day – Chemdas Shlomo (16)
  20. They thinned the wicks so they would only use 1/8th of the oil. The miracle was that the flame was as strong as if they used full wicks – Chidushei Ha-Rim (19)
  21. The bottle only had enough for one light for one day but it lasted for all seven lights for eight days – Chidushei Ha-Rim (20)
  22. They lit the menorah before dark on the evening of 24 Kislev, so the miracle also applied to the end of the first day – Chidushei Ha-Rim (21)
  23. We are not allowed to make a replica of Temple utensils. We therefore celebrate for eight days so the menorah will have eight branches, rather than seven like the Temple menorah – Sho’el U-Meishiv (23)
  24. Eight days like Sukkos – Bnei Yissaschar (27)
  25. The miracle was not in the quantity of oil but the quality, that it burned eight times slower than normal, which also occurred on the first day – R. Yosef Engel, R. Chaim Soloveitchik (36, 25)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

25 comments

  1. Soncino’s English Bavli Shabbat 21b includes the Succot rationale in a footnote, based on an explicit reference in 2 Maccabees:

    (26) This lighting took place in 165 B.C.E. Exactly three years before, on the same day, Antiochus Epiphanes had a pagan altar erected in the Temple, upon which sacrifices were offered (I Macc. I, 41-64). Apart from the Talmudic reason stated here, Judas Maccabeus chose 25th of Kislew as the anniversary of the Temple’s defilement, and the dedication of the new altar was celebrated with lights for eight days, similarly to the Feast of Tabernacles, which lasted eight days and was celebrated by illuminations (I Macc. IV, 36;II Macc. X, 6; supra a, p. 90, n. 3). Actually the revolt was against the Syrians, of whom Antiochus Epiphanes was king, but the term ‘Greeks’ is used loosely, because the Seleucid Empire was part of the older Empire founded by Alexander the Great of Macedon, and because it was a reaction against the attempted Hellenization of Judea. The historic data are contained in the First Book of the Maccabees.

    For those not familiar, 3 Maccabees 10:5-8 (NRSV) states:

    5 It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. 6 They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. 7 Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. 8 They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.

    Whereas, 1 Maccabees 4:59 (NRSV) is terser: “Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.”

  2. IH:

    “For those not familiar, 3 Maccabees 10:5-8 (NRSV) states…”

    You mean “2 Maccabees 10:5-8”, right?

  3. My favorite answer is the fact that everyone agreed that it was kosher and nobody passuled it, is a miracle unto itself.

  4. דברי הימים ב ז ט
    ויעשו ביום השמיני עצרת כי חנוכת המזבח עשו שבעת ימים והחג שבעת ימים

    shelomo’s dedication of the temple.

  5. See also the dedications of Moshe, Chizkiyahu, Ezra.

  6. Ri Milunel (12th century) mentions the Succos reason as well:

    לפיכך האריכו אלו הימים כשיעור החג שהיא שמנה ימים להזכיר בהם הנס, ואפילו לא נעשה בהם בשמן, כמו כן היו שמחים ומזכירין מעשה נסים כשיעור יום טוב הארוך מכל המועדות

    (Shabbat 21b)

  7. Per IH’s post from 2 maccabbees – “They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.”

    I wonder who were “they” and ” ratified by vote” – any articles on this topic?

  8. Ira: “My favorite answer is the fact that everyone agreed that it was kosher and nobody passuled it, is a miracle unto itself.”

    Great answer, Ira. Thanks!

  9. Ruvie — I was wondering that myself. If someone has a copy of Schwartz, perhaps they could share his footnotes on that with us.

  10. Ruvie, it seems clear to me that the meaning of “they” is consistent throughout this chapter: “Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city.”

  11. Shimon S – if “they” decreed why did “they” have to ratify? Did they give all there followers a right to ratify?

  12. They thinned the wicks so they would only use 1/8th of the oil. The miracle was that the flame was as strong as if they used full wicks – Chidushei Ha-Rim (19)

    Isn’t this (also) in the Beis haLevi?

  13. 23 is based on the idea of mehadrin min hamehadrin, which isn’t the original mitzvah.

    I once read that it wasn’t common practice to stamp the oil, so finding it was a miracle. Of course, the big discovery this week calls the assumption into question.

  14. I once read that it wasn’t common practice to stamp the oil, so finding it was a miracle.

    This is one of the 75 I didn’t list. Maybe next year.

  15. Ruvie,

    “if “they” decreed why did “they” have to ratify?”

    It seems to me that they first ratified it among themselves, then decreed for the nation.

    1 Macc 4:59 “Moreover Judas and his brethren with the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year by the space of eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu, with mirth and gladness.”

  16. shimon s – thanks – the good old days when the whole congregation ordains (one man one vote?)

  17. typo in 17. but that Ner Mitzva company would really have loved it if Chanuka lasted through 2 Sivan.

  18. So why do we do eight days when the year is short?

  19. I have this sefer and I absolutely love it! There is a sefer out there with 250 terutzim to the BY’s kashe. However, Rabbi Zelcer’s is more in depth.

    Reb Gil – do you know that he has similar type seforim on other famous kashes?

  20. He has on Purim for the question of how Amalekites (bnei banav shel Haman) teach Torah in Bnei Brak. I think he might also have one on Shavuos regarding the issue of zeman matan Toraseinu but I’m not sure. He passed away about a year ago.

  21. Yes, I read about his petirah in the HaModia.

  22. Hi, after reading this remarkable post i am too happy to share my knowledge here with friends.

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