Nice or not nice? You decide.
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:
- They divided the oil into eight parts and used one-eighth each night (ch. 1)
- After they filled the menorah each night, the bottle of oil was miraculously refilled (1)
- On each morning, they found the menorah refilled with oil (1)
- 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)
- One day of Chanukah celebrates the military victory – Pri Chadash (4)
- The first day commemorates the rededication of the Temple by the Hasmoneans – Shiltei Giborim (5)
- The eight days correspond to the eight days of circumcision, which the Greeks outlawed – Sefer Ha-Itim (5)
- 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)
- The first day commemorates the dedication of the Second Temple when it was built – R. Yaakov Emden (7)
- Finding the bottle of pure oil was in itself a miracle – Eshkol (8)
- 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)
- There was only enough oil for the first night but the menorah must be lit all day also – Birkei Yosef, Cheishek Shlomo (9)
- 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)
- 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)
- They planned on using multiple wicks dipped in the oil but the original wicks miraculously lasted all day – Chasam Sofer (12)
- They lit in the courtyard rather than the inner chamber. The greater wind created a need for more oil – Chasam Sofer (13)
- 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 Sivan even though it is now eight days rather than the original seven – Chasam Sofer (14)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- Eight days like Sukkos – Bnei Yissaschar (27)
- 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)
Some wag claimed that Chanukah was not so much a festival as a siege. If you want to relieve this siege, previous posts are here: One candle, Two candles, Three candles, Four candles, Five candles, Six candles, Seven candles.