Given the small number of original Rabbinic sources that
discuss Hanukkah, there are an overwhelming number of questions
that arise. We shall present some of these questions, and see if
answering them can give us a deeper understanding of the important
role Chanukah has in the development of Judaism in modern times.
1. The Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim, 670) asks the classic
question about Chanukah. "Why did they make Chanukah eight days?
There was enough oil in the flask [to burn] for one night, so it turns
out that a miracle happened for only seven nights!" Since the oil burned
naturally for one of the days, we should celebrate Chanukah for only
2. There are two Halachic principles which seem to render
the miracle completely unnecessary. "Ones Rachmana patrei" states
that the Torah exempts one who is a victim of circumstances beyond
his control. "Tuma hutra betzibur" states that if the entire
community is impure, service is permitted in that impure state.
The lack of pure oil after the Beit Hamikdash was rededicated was
certainly beyond the control of the Jews. And since it was a
communal situation, even the defiled oil could have been used.
Why should G-d have performed a supernatural miracle, altering the
order of creation, under such circumstances?
3. There were ten miracles on a daily basis in the Beit
Hamikdash (Avot 5:5) many of them much more striking than this one.
Yet we don't find any commemoration of them. And Mishna and
Gemara tell us of many other great miracles throughout this period, none
of which led to days of commemoration. What was so special about the
miracle of the oil that made it deserving of such prominence?
4. The major decrees of the Greeks were to prohibit
observance of the Shabbath, Brith Milah (Circumcision), and Kiddush
Hachodesh (court sanctification of a new month based on the new
moon). Why did these three specific Mitzvot bother the Jews more
than the other 610 Mitzvot?
5. They also prohibited the study and dissemination of Torah
Sheb'al Peh (oral Torah) while elevating the Torah Shebichtav
(written Torah) by having it translated into Greek. Why did they
make such a striking distinction?
The texts dealing with Hanukkah are themselves a source for
We are taught in Megilat Ta'anit (Ch. 9) of the events leading up to
the Chanukah miracle. The Rabbis ask: "Why did they make Chanukah
eight days? The other Chanukahs (referring to the consecrations
of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) built by Moshe Rabbeinu, and of the
first Temple built by Shlomo) were seven days!? The Chashmonaim
entered the Heichal (Sanctuary of the Temple), built the Altar and
plastered it, fixed the service vessels, and were occupied with
[the Heichal] (misaskim bo) for eight days."
It sounds like the actual work needed to take only a short
time, yet they prolonged the process, almost artificially, for
eight days! What were the Chashmonaim occupied with for eight
days that couldn't have been accomplished in less time, and what
are the Rabbis telling us by emphasizing it?
In the Midrash on the second verse in the Torah (Breishit 1:2;
Breishit Rabba 2:4) the Rabbis teach us that the forces which would
exile the Jewish people throughout history existed from the time of the
creation process. V'Haretz hayta tohu - zu Malchut Bavel...: "The
earth was desolate," this is the Babylonian kingdom...; VaVohu - zu
Malchut Madai...: "and chaotic" is the kingdom of Persia...;
V'Choshech - zu Malchut Yavan, sehechshicha eineihem shel Yisrael
b'gzeiroteihem...: "and darkness" is the kingdom of Greece, which
darkened the eyes of the Jews with their decrees.
Calling the Greek kingdom one of darkness is particularly
difficult to understand. Greek ideology loved and worshipped
wisdom. They were the most enlightened society until that time,
with most of our western thought, culture, and intellectual and
academic disciplines having developed from it. Chazal respected
wisdom, and they teach us: Chochma BaGoyim ta'amin, wisdom can be
found among non-Jewish nations. The Greeks themselves appreciated
the wisdom of the Torah. That was one of the reasons they wanted
the Torah translated into Greek -- so they could better understand
it. It is therefore strange that from among all the kingdoms, the
Rabbis chose to call such an enlightened society "choshech,"
We will begin our discussion from this last question, which
will enable us to gain a deeper understanding of the conflict
between Jewish and Greek ideology.
Noach had three children, Shem, Cham, and Yefeth, the
forefathers of the world cultures. Shem in Hebrew means "name,"
which represents the essence of something, the pnimiyut, the
internal reality. The ancestor of Greece was Yefet, from the word
yofi, representing the external beauty.
The Greeks believed in nature, and they worshipped it. They
placed primary importance externals: strength; the physical body;
majority subjugates the minority; survival of the fittest; what
you see is what you get. Their ideology required man to operate
within the laws of nature, to try to dominate nature, and when
necessary to pay the required homage to the gods of nature, gods
imbued with observable human characteristics, lusts and
limitations. Only what was observable on the outside counted, not
what was hidden inside. Even their wisdom was based on what man,
exclusively through his natural human intellect, could figure out
and understand. Chazal appropriately called that "Chochma
Chitzonit," exterior wisdom.
The Jews believed in the existence of an inner dimension of
reality, pnimiyut, which was itself not observable but which was
the essence of all that was observable. Everything that exists is
an outward revelation of this inner reality. The source of this
inner reality is the Divine, and every aspect of creation is an
outward revelation of G-d, whether it be nature, Torah or man
himself. (For example, the physical body reflects the number of
positive (248) and negative (365) commandments of the Torah.
Modern discoveries in quantam mechanics reflect a physical world
working on an atomic level in ways that are similar to the
metaphysical world painted for us by Chazal and the Kabalists.)
Our ancestor was Shem. The ancestor of Greece was Yefeth
(Breishit 10:4). The fundamental conflict between Israel and Greece
is embodied in the names of our ancestors: The pnimiyut of Shem or
the chitzoniyut of Yefet; the inner dimension, or what appears
obvious on the surface; the hidden essence or "what you see is
what you get."
This dialectic encompasses the world, nature, and even the
Torah. The Torah itself has an exterior dimension, the Written
Torah, which is accessible to all nations. This is how the Bible
has become the basis of three major religions. But there is also
an inner hidden dimension, the Oral Torah, and this is where the
hidden Divine aspects of Torah reside. The Oral Torah can be
likened to the "personality" of the Torah, the essence of the
Torah. This dimension is accessible only through a combination of
man's intense intellectual struggle coupled with Divine
inspiration. Torah Sh'bichtav, the Written Torah, has no real
impact on a person when it is studied only on its surface level
without its inner dimension, which is why the non-Jewish world can
have the Bible and be so little influenced by it. Yet this is
exactly the kind of Torah the Greeks believed in, a wisdom that
need not change the essence of the person, that need not bring
with it any obligations, that has no inner affect. Torah was
treated as any other wisdom, and they had it translated into Greek
to show that even the Torah could be part of their curriculum.
The Jews had no monopoly on it. From the perspective of wisdom
and intellect, the Greeks appeared correct, and the Jews were a
threat to this limited perspective. The Greek defense was to
usurp the Written Torah for themselves, and eradicate the concept
of Torah Sheb'al Peh, an Oral Torah.
As we say in Al Hanissim: Lehashkicham Toratechah (To make
the forget YOUR Torah) uLeha'aviram M'CHUKEI Retzonecha (and to
make them transgress your statutes). Chukim, statutes, are the
Torah laws which defy rational explanation, reflecting the hidden
inner dimension that exists in the Torah. This is exactly the
dimension of Torah that the Greeks were trying to eradicate, for
this drove home the fact that it was G-d's Torah; that there was
wisdom that transcended man's own wisdom, and that there were laws
that were not accessible to man's understanding. If Judaism has a
conflict with Western culture in the twentieth century, it is with
the blatant superficiality and emphasis on externals that
pervades. But this is a natural extension of the perspective that
says that the only reality is one that we can see and figure out
Torah, viewed only with its exterior dimension, is another
way to enrich life. Jews view Torah, with its inner, hidden
dimensions, as life itself.
Greek Spirituality vs. Jewish Spirituality
The Greeks believed that the only reality is the physical
reality of nature, and that nature was an absolute. If there is a
drought, it is the result of natural cycles, and man has to wait
out these natural cycles. If calamities befall the world, we
search for geopolitical, economic, social, or psychological
factors to explain them. G-d has no input in the world after its
creation, and it is propelled by fixed forces.
The Jews believed that there is an ongoing relationship
between G-d and man, and that the laws of nature are related to a
spiritual reality. These two ideas are embodied in Shabbath and
in Kiddush HaChodesh, sanctification of the New Moon. Shabbath,
the seventh day, imbues the six days of creation with a Kedusha,
an INTERNAL spiritual reality which the Greeks denied could exist.
And Shabbat embodied a Brith, a covenant, between G-d and the
Jewish people, testifying to a unique relationship that existed on
an ongoing basis between them. Kiddush HaChodesh manifests man's
influence over the spiritual process. Without man's input, there
are holidays with no holiness. Man can actually create (hidden)
Are We Prisoners of Nature?
The Greeks believed that man is a product of nature and was
controlled by it. His physical drives and lusts were an integral
part of his essence, and they controlled him. Brith Mila
represented Judaism conviction of man's ability to transcend his
natural lusts and instincts, to control and elevate them. Man is
the unification of the physical body with an inner soul. There
was a "pnimiyut," and inner dimension, to the external shell.
This uniquely Jewish concept of man having the ability to
transcend his nature is represented by the number eight.
One of the most frequently occurring numbers that we
encounter is the number seven. It is the number of days of
creation of the world, the days of the week, the days of Sukkot
and Pesach, the weeks in the Omer cycle, the number of years in
Shmittah and Yovel cycles, the number of days the Torah considers
a woman a Niddah, the number of days required for ritual
purification. It is a number very much tied to cycles in nature.
It is also the number of Mitzvot non-Jews have, and 70 was the
number of cows (representing the 70 nations) which were sacrificed
on Sukkoth, a holiday of seven days, and in which non-Jews could
have a part. When Bila'am brought sacrifices in preparation for
cursing the Jews, he brought seven cows and seven rams on seven
altars (Bamidbar Ch. 23). It is a number very much associated
with universalism as well as the totality of material creation.
The Maharal elaborates on this with the illustration of the
six directions in the three-dimensional physical world, plus the
center point, which itself has no dimension but is the anchor and
the essence of the six directions. This gives a total of seven
points, with the seventh representing the spiritual dimension that
exists within nature. This spiritual dimension is a property of
the natural world, and is not something unique to Jews, as we find
even non-Jews searching for meaning, for a spiritual significance
in their lives.
The number eight, on the other hand, represents a dimension
transcending nature. This dimension is reserved exclusively for
the Jews. We find the number eight in Brit Mila, the eternal
covenant of membership of the Jewish people. Shavuoth, the day
the Torah was given to the Jewish people, is on the day following
the seventh week of seven days, and is considered like the eighth
day of Pesach, paralleling Shmini Atzereth as the eighth day of
Sukkoth (Ramban Vayikra 23:36; Maharal Ner Mitzvah).
Shmini Atzereth, following the seven days of Sukkoth, is
designated as a private celebration for the Jews with G-d
(Yalkut Shimoni 782, Bamidbar Ch. 29.) In the Beit Hamikdash
an animal could only be brought as a sacrifice from the eighth day,
after it has been with its mother through one natural cycle of seven
days. The number eight is found in things that are unique to the
Jewish people and in things which transcend the order of nature.
The Spiritual and Physical United
The Psalm of the day for Chanukah is Tehilim Ch. 30, Mizmor
Shir Channukat HaBayit LeDavid... Yet the Psalm seems to have
nothing to do with Beit David, the Beit HaMikdash, or its
consecration. It is a description of the trials and tribulations
buffeting man during the vicissitudes of human life. What makes
this appropriate for Channukat HaBayit, the consecration of the
The Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash are the meeting places
between infinite G-d who descends to manifest his presence in the
finite world, and finite man who strives to elevate himself to the
heights of an infinite G-d. It is the most tangible manifestation
of the concept of "chibur elyon v'tachton," the unification of the
transcendent spiritual world with the material physical world.
But the challenge of a Jew is to reveal that unification in
the ongoing functioning of the world, in nature, and in man
The rising and setting sun, the rainfall, the birth of a
baby, and all the daily events which we take for granted as
"nature" are in fact as miraculous as a one-day quantity of oil
burning for eight days. To answer the classic question of the
Beit Yosef, we can understand the eight days of Chanukah as our
declaration and as a revelation of the existence of Divine reality
in every aspect of nature, an identity between the one day for
which the oil burnt naturally and the seven days when the Menora
burnt with no natural explanation. The days of miraculous burning
were made possible through the recognition of that inner reality
of the natural burning, a reality that truly exists only because
of the unification of the Divine with physical matter. This is a
reality not apparent when one looks only at the surface, limited
to observable nature, represented by the number seven.
So when the Chashmonaim entered the defiled sanctuary, they
occupied themselves with repairing it for a full eight days.
Eight days were not necessary for the physical-level work that
needed to be done. But eight days were necessary to anchor the
concepts of an inner reality and spiritual transcendence, so
crucial at a time when the world was in the process of adopting a
culture that denied anything beyond the natural and observable.
While the lack of pure oil was a circumstance beyond their
control, in the inner world of the Divine there are no excuses
such as being a "victim of circumstances." Every circumstance is
another opportunity to reveal, in some way, the inner Divine
reality that encompasses all creation. Purity and holiness are
elements of an inner reality. Oil that is tahor, pure, and oil
that is tamei, defiled, look the same. The difference lies only
in their hidden essence. In this case, lighting pure oil wasn't
simply optional, it was a necessity. Nothing less than pure oil
could serve to highlight the Jewish emphasis on internal reality,
in opposition to the emphasis on the external dimension. What you
see is not necessarily what you get. It's what's inside that
We live in a culture of blatant superficiality with an
emphasis on externals. This reflects an existence which is
limited to the dimensions of nature, based on "seven." Even our
Judaism and Torah study can be limited to that external dimension.
These things can be meaningful, they can enrich our lives, but if
they lack the internal soul and essence, we have lost their
uniquely Jewish dimension, based on "eight," which the
Chashmonaim fought so valiantly to preserve in the still-ongoing
battle with Greek culture.