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)

(Reposted from last year)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor 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, 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 has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. In the recent Chanuka: Halachic Musings post, Ephrayim recommended Prof. Vered Noam’s article in which she analyzes the extant manuscripts of the Hebrew commentary on Megillat Ta’anit. Since this commentary is within the confines of the Rabbinic corpus, AFAIK, perhaps her analysis — which includes the commentary text in Hebrew and in translation — should also be more widely known. It is available online at: http://www.verednoam.com/articles/Noam%20Cruse%20of%20Oil.pdf

  2. I recently found out that the Tosfos HaRosh asks the same exact question, and gives 3 answers, just like the Beis Yosef…

    Its funny we always call it the Beis Yosef’s question, when it’s really the Rosh’s.

  3. Answers 2 and 3 don’t really deal with the issue, they just “relocate” the question to the last day (since the oil didn’t last for 9 days, it’s reasonable to assume that there were only 7 miraculous refillings).

  4. I would highly recommend vered noam’s critical addition of megilat taanit (mt). Interestingly mt also ask why 8 days but in the original manuscript there is no pach shemen story. Also the or zura quotes the MT for the reason of Chanukah and not the bavli on hilchot Chanukah. Not sure if the beit Yosef had the mt which gives a different reason for 8 days.

    See also eliezer brodt article : Chanukah omission – he also at the end discuss noam’s critical addition of MT plus why Chanukah is not the Mishnah – well sort of it is but the chatan sofer answer is unfortunately taught to most school children.


  5. Here’s an interesting thought: All answers (7, 24, maybe others) that give an independent reason for all eight days are essentially “overriding” the oil story entirely. Indeed, one may wonder if the reverse is true- the “other” reasons are true and the oil story is secondary.

    Actually, we don’t have to wonder, because, as is well known, the oldest source gives exactly such an independent reason, one with many antecedents in Tanach as well.

  6. The most compelling answer is that since they did not celebrate Sukkot that year in the Holy Temple, they proclaimed an 8 day festival. (Arukh ha-Shulhan based on the Book of the Macabbees)

  7. I’m an aruch hashulchan guy, also see r slifkin’s post where artscroll has kashered the books of the macabees. Having said that- since we may not rely on miracles – what would the poseik of the macabees have said to do on the first night? I always assumed fill er up

  8. The Dude: You know you can open Maccabees yourself. It doesn’t have to kashered.

    Joel: Assume that on day two, they could use whatever olive oil was on hand?

  9. R’ Joel , The Dude- always bothered by that answer ( nice to see the arukh ha shulchan read one of the Sefer hachitzonim but perilous in losing olam haba- see Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1:)). Are we suppose to in every generation celebrate 8 days for a holiday because the Hasmoneans didn’t observe sukkot for one year around 167 bce? And how did they celebrate – candles or no candles? Maybe just latkes:)

  10. Ruvie, the Mishna is:

    1) Not halacha but a citation to one Tanna. The Amoraim cite Ben Sira a lot.

    2) Clearly refers not to merely reading but to including other books in Tanach, a fear likely motivated by Christians.

  11. Nachum – you missed 😉 to my comment. rabbi akiva is not just one pashut tanna.
    רבי עקיבה אומר, אף הקורא בספרים החיצונים,
    it says reads – also as you know the rambam categorizes this as poetry and history books. don’t remember if he makes it an halacha but that mishna is the basis of the 13 beliefs – one of the few theological/aggadic mishnahs.

    this mishna is one of the more sophisticated and complicated i have seen – original manuscripts – ms kaufman – has a totally different version.

  12. Of course it’s Rabbi Akiva, but he’s not cited as halakha. Again, of course that Mishna is important, but that part is not halakha. As to other works, the Yerushalmi says that the Mishna is talking about Apocrypha, but Homer, for example, is OK, probably because no one would dream of putting it in Tanach.

  13. 2 Maccabees 12:38-45, to me, is an intriguing clue to understanding that mishna.

  14. Nachum – no doubt there are many interpretations of what sefer hachizonim refer to. but since it says קורא one can argue if it means inclusion into tanach. most likely it refers to the new testament and that would be more consistent with both rabbi akiva other statement and abba shmuel statement – as well as the later addition of “min hatorah” for techiyat hamatim.

    to you first post – i wonder why the oil story takes dominance in jewish literature over the original sources– perhaps its the best answer to why lighting oil/candles and why eight days – whether its just folklore is besides the point. thoughts?

  15. Rav Meir Shpiegelman of Gush has an article in an early edition of Daf Kesher (the weekly parsha/dvar torah sheet that the Yeshiva sends out to its soldiers) where he tackles this questions along with why we adopt an approach of מוסיף והולך – why not just light eight every night? In brief (and my apologies for not doing his original thinking justice), he writes that the menorah needed to be rededicated, and that would occur by its being used in full. Thus, on the first night they only lit one candle, thinking that they would do that for the week until they got new oil. That was not enough to rededicate the menorah and thus they were not mevatel the aseh of lighting it. When they saw on the second night that the first one was still lit, they lit the second one. And so on until they had the entire thing burning. Thus, each night had the miracle of one more candle remaining lit and our minhag to add a candle thus mimics what happened at the time of the story.

    Not sure if his history is accurate, but it is a tremendously creative approach (he bases it on the psukim of the four times that the menorah is mentioned in the Torah and what is learned from each of them).

  16. Ok, so the book of maccabees is outside the cannon. Does that mean we shouldn’t look inside it and check for the answer?

  17. nachum,
    that’s what i understand-R” Y Sacks from YU always says they could have lit with impure o il the first night if that’s all they had – the miracle was needed to show want to start on lchatchila basis

  18. IH, what does that selection have to do with it?

    May I propose what I think is the probably the best answer? (That is, if the oil miracle is the actual reason.) We’re human beings! If someone says, “The oil lasted eight days!” we make an eight day holiday. We don’t pause to say, “Well, um, it was supposed to last one day anyway…” That’s just the way we are.

  19. R’ Shpigelman’s (short) article is available here:

  20. The most intriguing idea I got out of Vered Noam’s article was the suggestion that a miracle should occur on the 8th day of the Temple’s dedication in order to validate it and indicate God’s presence. This is evident in the Torah in parshat Shmini, and something similar occurs with Shlomo Hamelech’s inauguration of bayit rishon.

    If so, then all the gemara adds is an explanation of what the miracle consisted of. And perhaps there weren’t too many options for what the miracle could be, seeing as it had to be something hidden and private (i.e. not known to the masses then or in the gemara’s time), and it likely involved the menorah (since the holiday’s unique mitzvah consists of lighting).

  21. BTW, the above explanation fits my understanding of all midrash as “a likely pshat, if you make the assumptions the midrashic author makes, which is presented as if it is the definite pshat”.

  22. Shlomo- the question also is when did they start – earliest source- lighting candles/oil with a menorah for the holiday? I don’t believe you see that in the book of Maccabees or in Josephus – I think Josephus says he doesn’t know why they call it lights.

  23. It isn’t the Beis Yosef’s question, and it isn’t the Rosh’s question. The question was asked by THE oldest rabbinic source relating to Chanukah, the Megilas Ta’anis. And it is answered, one would have thought, authoritatively.

    Put another way, if a super-early source, which is the actual source for the Gemara’s “Mai Chanukah?” quote, answers this question clearly, why on earth isn’t this dispositive? Personally, I think the answer is that very, very few people know or knew about the megilas Ta’anis.

    I would love to hear any other theory.

  24. From pp. 223-224 of Prof. Noam’s article referenced and linked in the 1st comment:

    [Background: Megilat Ta’anit proper is written in Aramaic and contains brief outlines in concise style; but, it also includes Scholia or commentaries on the text, written in Hebrew. Two extant manuscript versions of the scholia have been found to be different regarding the Hanukkah material: one in Oxford (Scholium O) and one in Parma (Scholium P).]

    An indirect outcome of comparing the traditions regarding Hanukkah in the Babylonian Talmud and in the Scholia is that we obtain an indication of the value and origins of Scholium O and Scholium P. These two extant scholia, although fragmented and corrupt, preserve authentic and important traditions. The tradition in Scholium O involving the building of the altar and the repairing of the service vessels does not appear at all in the Babylonian Talmud, nor does the comparison with the dedications of Moses and Solomon. The incident of the iron spits, which was part of the original Scholium O, in fact alluded to in the baraita cited in the Babylonian Talmud, but the version in the Scholium appears to be an earlier version than that of the baraita. As to Scholium P, its presentation of the homiletical interpretation regarding Hallel, and the comparisons it makes with the dedications of Moses and Solomon have no parallel version whatsoever, either in the Talmud or in Rabbinic literature in general. The baraita, “The precept of Hanukkah [demands] one light” is the only unit that may have been the same as, or similar to, what appears in the Babylonian Talmud, but it was cut short by copyists. The original Scholium O made no mention whatsoever of the story of the cruse of oil; Scholium P presents it in an earlier, more primitive version. These substantial differences in content clearly indicate that there is no generic connection between the explanation in the Talmud and the scholia in their extant form. Even though Scholia O an P are considerably inferior to the Talmud in syntax and style, they incorporate unique ancient sources, not a trace of which are to be found either in the Talmud itself or in the rabbinic literature in general, but which are verified by such external sources as Maccabees and Josephus. Furthermore, we happened upon one tradition – the miracle of the cruse of oil – which appears in Scholium P in an early variant, while the very same tradition appears in the Babylonian Talmud in a later reworked version, indicating that Scholia O and P were redacted and in an atmosphere as yet unencumbered by the influence of the Babylonian Talmud. Interestingly, the miracle of the cruse of oil is conspicuously absent in the ancient Erez Israel piyyutim.

    For more, ayen shama.

  25. 3rd line from the bottom should read “written and redacted in an atmosphere”. [Sorry, I was typing it in manually]

  26. Eskimo, the question stated in Megillas Taanis does not ask why 8 days were instituted if the miracle was only for 7 of the days, it asks why 8 days were instituted if other chanukas hamizbeach holidies (Moshe and Shlomo) were only 7… Implicitly saying the holiday wasn’t established based on the oil miracle, but the chanukas habayis.

  27. Eskimo: Megillat Taanit itself says nothing on the question. The Scholia asks the question and gives an answer I don’t quite understand, but seems to indicate that it took them eight days to fix up the Mikdash. Is that what you meant?

  28. By the way, you can read Moshe and Shlomo (and Chizkiyahu and Nechemiah) as, indeed, being eight days.

  29. Nachum – the point is MT didn’t. we always can teich in an answer.

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