by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
The story of Chanukah is one of the most well-known among the Jewish
holidays. As the Chofetz Chaim writes in his preface to the Laws of
Chanukah, the Jews "came up onto the Temple Mount, and could not find pure
oil in the Temple -- with the exception of a single container bearing the
seal of the High Priest. There was only a single day's supply of oil in
this container, but a miracle occurred. They lit the Menorah from it for
eight days, until they were able to press olives and extract pure oil."
Many Jewish children cannot tell you what Shavuos celebrates (the holiday
of the Giving of the Torah), but they know the Chanukah story well!
Or do they?
The truth is that the story of Chanukah is much greater than the story of
the Menorah alone. In fact, the oil is such a minor detail that our Sages
omitted it from the special prayer "for the miracles" which they added to
the daily prayers during the holiday.
To learn the more critical elements of the story, we can read the Chofetz
Chaim's preface from the beginning. "During the Second Temple period, an
evil [Greek] kingdom ruled and enacted decrees upon Israel. They nullified
their religion, and did not permit them to involve themselves with Torah
and Mitzvos. They took their property and their daughters. They entered the
Temple, violated its sanctity, and defiled the pure. And this was very
painful upon Israel...
"Until the G-d of our forefathers had mercy upon them, and rescued them
from [the Greeks]. And the Chashmonayim [Hasmoneans], of the house of the
High Priest, were victorious over them... and the Kingdom was restored to
Israel for more than 200 years, until the Destruction of the Second Temple."
Compared to the restoration of Jewish practices to the Holy Temple, freedom
to practice Judaism, and an end to Greek oppression of the Jews -- now we
understand why the miracle of the Menorah was omitted. It is almost trivial
In fact, according to Jewish Law, it was not even necessary. It takes a
full week to purify oneself from a state of impurity. In a situation where
most of the people are in an impure state, Jewish law permits them to
perform Temple services while still impure, even though they pass
impurity to the vessels and objects used. In other words, they could have
lit the Menorah using impure oil, when no pure oil was available!
Why, then, is the miracle of the oil so important to the story? Why do we
light our own Menorahs throughout the holiday? To understand this, we must
try to look at Chanukah from the eyes of those who experienced it.
This was truly a dark period in Jewish history. When the Greeks came, they
did not merely exert military control -- as the Chofetz Chaim wrote, they
also worked to nullify the Jewish religion. They were successful to a
considerable extent, to the point that many Jews abandoned Judaism in favor
of idolatry. When the Greeks set up a stadium in Jerusalem, many Jews
participated, even though the original Greek games were conducted in the
nude. The Jews were so contaminated by Greek thinking that these athletes
attempted to hide the signs of their circumcision, because the Greeks
considered the body perfect in its natural state.
In the midst of this darkness, a small group of Jews led a revolution. They
not only faced the Greek Army -- unfortunately this war was Jew against Jew
as well. And when they regained the Temple Mount, they found it in a
contaminated state, with idols set up within the Temple itself.
Had the Jews, in fact, strayed so far that the Hasmonean rebellion was
futile? Was there to be another exile -- as actually came to pass, 200
In this context, we can see the miracle of the oil for what it truly was: a
sign from Heaven. It was a message from G-d that He was still watching over
the Jews, and accepted their return.
No matter how far we have strayed, the message of the Chanukah lights
remains the same: we can always return, we can always rededicate ourselves
-- and G-d is always waiting for us. May that message warm our hearts, and
our homes, throughout the holiday -- and throughout the year!
A very Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken