Why is the miracle of Chanukah about olive oil? Probably everyone who is reading this knows the answer. Chazal (our Sages) explain it in the Gemara (the Talmud) (Shabbat 21b):
When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils there. And when the [future] rulers from the family of the Chashmonaim (the Macabees) prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one vessel of oil set away with the seal of the High Priest. It had in it only enough to light for one day. A miracle was done to it and they lit from it for eight days. The next year, they established [those days] as holy days for giving praise and thanks.
Okay, but why specifically oil, and even more specifically the oil for lighting the menorah? After all, there were several different types of supplies used for the service in Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple): flour for meal offerings, a different grade of olive oil that was mixed with the flour, incense and its ingredients, salt, and wine. Why wasn’t the miracle of Chanukah done with any of those?
It may be, of course, that the Greeks weren’t interested in defiling any of those and only turned their attention to the special oil for lighting the menorah. If so, we have to ask why that oil, of all things, drew their attention. More likely, they destroyed, plundered, and defiled everything they could get their hands on. (It doesn’t take much imagination to know what they did with the wine.) But of the other supplies, they either left enough that no miracle was necessary or they ruined everything, so that there was no small amount to form the basis of a miracle. In that case, we have to ask why HaShem made sure that a tiny amount, and only a tiny amount, was left sealed and undefiled specifically of oil for lighting the menorah.
To understand that, we have to understand the significance of the menorah and its lights. First, let’s understand what it is not. If you have children who went to gan here in Israel, you probably heard them sing that classic song that starts with the words כד קטן, כד קטן (a small cruse of oil). The end of the song is: אילולי כד זה נשאר / מקדשנו לא הואר (If this cruse had not remained, our Holy Temple would not have been illuminated.)
Unfortunately, like too many other children’s songs, that is just plain wrong. The menorah in Beit HaMikdash is very much not an ancient precursor of electric lights; it was not there to provide light so the kohanim could see what they were doing when they went about the holy service.
Once again we turn to the Gemara (Shabbat 22b), which refers to VaYikra (Leviticus) 24:1-3:
HaShem spoke to Moshe to say, command the Children of Yisrael that they should take to you pure olive oil, pressed for lighting, in order to light a constant flame. Outside the Curtain of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, Aharon will arrange it from evening until morning before HaShem constantly, an eternal law for all your generations.
On this, the Gemara says:
Does He need light? Isn’t it so that all forty years that the Children of Yisrael walked through the wilderness, they walked only by His light? But rather, it is testimony (taking the phrase “outside the Curtain of the Testimony” and reading it as “outside the Curtain is the testimony”) to all those who come into the world that HaShem’s Presence rests upon the People of Yisrael. What is that testimony? It is the Western Flame, into which he (the kohen preparing and lighting the menorah) puts the same amount of oil as into all the others, and from it he begins lighting and with it he concludes.
One of the seven lights of the Menorah (there are two opinions among Chazal about which one it is) is called the Western Flame. Even though it gets the same amount of oil as the rest, the others burned from late afternoon until morning, but the Western Flame kept burning through the day, until it was time to light the Menorah again. This daily miracle is evidence of HaShem’s Presence upon us. And notice: this daily miracle is a miniature version of the Chanukah miracle.
So now, what is the connection between light and HaShem’s Presence? Well, what is the significance of light? Most simply: light is what enables us to see where we’re going and what we’re doing. And – probably in every culture in the world, instinctively – light is a symbol of intellectual and spiritual insight, understanding, and the recognition of truth. Just think of words and phrases like “enlightenment” and “I have seen the light!” and its opposites, such as “benighted peoples” and “groping in the dark”. In our own sources, one of the very many examples is in Tehilim (Psalms) 18:29:
For You light my candle; the Eternal, my G-d, will light up my darkness.
And, indeed, many commentators understand the Menorah and its olive oil this way: it conveys the message that HaShem is the source of our enlightenment, that knowledge of truth requires knowing HaShem, that we must use our intellect to serve HaShem.
Another thing about light: In the Torah’s description of Creation, the first thing HaShem created was light. Bereishit (Genesis) 1:4 tells us that an essential part of that creation was the separation of light from darkness. We can say that the creation of light is also the paradigm for the making of separations and distinctions.
Now let’s look at another reference to darkness in the Torah. Chapter 15 of Bereishit describes what is called the Brit bein HaBetarim, the Covenant between the Pieces. In the course of it, HaShem informs Avraham Avinu, through both words and symbolic experience, of the future oppressions and sufferings of his descendants. Bereishit 15:12:
It happened as the sun was about to set, that a deep sleep fell upon Avraham, and behold, a terror, a great darkness, was falling upon him.
Chazal (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 44, among other places) see that phrase as four separate elements (terror, darkness, great, falling) and say that they allude to the Four Kingdoms – the four world powers that would oppress the Jewish People. Among them:
Darkness – this is Greece, which darkened the eyes of Yisrael by their decrees. For they said to the Jewish People: Write on the horn of an ox that you have no part in the G-d of Israel.
A slightly more detailed description appears in Midrash Tanchuma Tazria 11:
They [the Greeks] said: Anyone who owns an ox must engrave on the ox’s horn that he has no part in the G-d of Israel. Anyone who does not do it will be put to death.
Why is this “darkening the eyes”? Most simply, this phrase means to cause pain, misery, sorrow, to make people feel as if their world is coming to an end. But, in the case of the Greeks and their decrees, there is more to it. What were the Greeks trying to do? To get the Jews to think and live their way, to abandon our whole system of beliefs – our whole set of ideas about what is good and right, the purpose of life, what one should aspire to – and accept their system of beliefs, which are the opposite of ours. They wanted to “enlighten” us and “open our eyes” in a way that was actually darkening our eyes. In the words of Yishayahu (Isaiah) 5:20:
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who set darkness as light and light as darkness, who set bitter as sweet and sweet as bitter.
This is exactly what the Greeks and their sympathizers, the Jewish Hellenizers – the wealthy, powerful, “cultured” class – were doing and were trying to force everyone else to do. The people who resisted and who remained faithful to Torah were described as benighted, old-fashioned, extremists and troublemakers. And when the forces faithful to Torah were victorious, how did HaShem show His approval and celebrate with them? By showing that He considered them to be like a tiny amount of pure oil that remained in the shadows when all the rest had been defiled. Given that they were a small group from among the “wrong” class, their opponents probably thought that their triumph could not last long, that their light could burn for only one night. But HaShem showed that, on the contrary, their light could go on and on as long as it was a true representation of HaShem’s light and His Presence upon the Jewish People.
This “darkening of the eyes,” this turning upside down of truth that Yishayahu describes, is exactly what is happening today in Western society, including those here in Israel who hold power and influence and consider themselves to be mainstream society. All of us who understand what is wrong with their way have to remain strong against it, to make the statement that light is light and darkness is darkness and they must be separated from each other. And we must know that eventually our tiny bit of pure oil will also increase miraculously, triumph, and give great light.
One more point: If possible, we put our Chanukah lights where they can be seen outdoors. Why? “To publicize the miracle.” But if you and I are both doing it, we already know about the miracle. Why do we have to look across and see each other’s Chanukah lights? Why do we have to publicize the miracle to each other? To show that we not only know, but we know that the other one knows. So that the language of miracles and of faith in and faithfulness to HaShem and His Torah will be our common language. Furthermore, the Chanukah lights are supposed to be visible to passers-by. This language of faith must not only be a secret language among our small group but must become the language of “the man in the street,” the national language of the Jewish People. This is what we need to accomplish in our times.
This Op-Ed/Analysis is the author’s personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of JerusalemOnline.com.