The Significance of the Miracle of Oil
Adapted by Matan Glidai
Translated by Kaeren Fish
There are several difficulties related to the Chanuka story:
1. Rashi and the Ran (Pesachim 17) understand that if a person pours an impure liquid into a pure liquid, each individual drop becomes nullified in the pure liquid, and thus the entirety is eventually pure. According to this, we may ask why the Chashmonaim did not use this "trick" to make their single cruse of pure oil last for eight days.
2. Even if we follow not Rashi and the Ran but rather the Rambam, who maintains that a quantity of impure liquid cannot be nullified in a pure liquid, why could they not light the menora anyway, since its impurity can be ignored when the entire public is impure, as we learn from the Gemara (Yoma 6b)?
3. Why does the Gemara (Shabbat 21b) mention only the miracle of the cruse of oil and not the miraculous military victory, although from Sefer Makkabim it appears clear that this latter miracle was no less astounding and unprecedented?
4. Why do we not practice the Chanuka ritual in the same way that we do on Purim, and light the channukia all together in the synagogue? (Chanuka lights are indeed kindled in the synagogue, but no one fulfills his obligation thereby.) Why is this mitzva "dispersed," such that every person has to light in his own home?
5. Why are we forbidden from using, or deriving any benefit from, the Chanuka lights – a prohibition that does not exist with respect to other mitzvot?
The Gemara teaches that the westernmost light of the menora in the Temple is a sign to all the world that the Shekhina resides amongst Israel. In the First Temple, the Shekhina literally descended to Israel; a fire descended from heaven and consumed the sacrifices. The Gemara explains that the western light ceased to burn during the days of King Achaz, or in the days of Shimon HaTzaddik. Either way, during the period of the Chashmonaim there was no public display of the Shekhina's presence in the Temple. The Divine service continued, but without a sign that the Shekhina indeed dwelled there.
The decrees of Antiochus were not a Greek initiative. The idea originated with a delegation of Jews requesting of Antiochus that they be permitted to join themselves to the culture of the Greeks. Even after the victory of the Maccabees, the phenomenon of Hellenism did not disappear. The Hellenists must certainly have regarded that victory as no more than good luck for the traditional Jews. Am Yisrael needed a heavenly sign to prove that the Shekhina dwelled among them, and the Hellenists were wrong. The nation was not at a level where there were frequent public miracles, but the Holy One granted them a one-time miracle to show the entire nation that He was still with them. The physical victory was not enough; a spiritual victory was needed – the nation needed to expel the phenomenon of Hellenism and the various influences of Greek culture.
Thus, although there were a number of ways of technically kindling the lights even without a miracle, a return to routine service in the Temple was not going to solve the problem. A mere renewal of the service would prove nothing. It is for this reason that the Gemara emphasizes the miracle of the cruse of oil, for it was this that ultimately expressed the full victory over Greek culture.
Since the Chanuka lights express the revelation of the Shekhina, we can understand why we are forbidden to derive any benefit from the oil or the lights. The Sefer ha-Eshkol explains that the oil reminds us of the oil in the Temple, and we may say that even our oil is a sort of "revelation of the Shekhina," like the oil used for the Divine service.
Our generation also has a particular need for spiritual education. To our sorrow, many people pervert the significance of the lighting of Chanuka candles, which symbolizes the revelation of the Shekhina in each and every home. Why is lighting in the synagogue not sufficient? The miracle needs to be publicized not just among those who frequent the synagogue, but rather among those who do not.
On Chanuka, many sing a popular song "al ha-nisim ve-al ha-niflaot asher cholelu ha-Makkabim" - "on the miracles and wonders that the Maccabees performed," instead of "the miracles and wonders that God performed for the Maccabees." This misconception is tragic and arrogant. Our task is to spread the light in every possible place. Every household is obligated to light the Chanuka candes - to sanctify the name of Heaven and to infuse itself and its surroundings with Divine inspiration, fear of heaven and the spreading of Torah.