The Miracle of the Lights

  • by: Rav Yair Kahn

Also available at Yeshivat Har Etzion Virtual Beit Midrash.

“What is Chanuka? Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev begin the eight days of Chanuka; we may not eulogize on these days nor may we fast on them. When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil in the Temple. And when the royal house of the Chashmonaim prevailed and were victorious over them, they searched and found only one vial of oil which still had the stamp of the Kohen Gadol intact, and it contained enough to light for only one day. A miracle occurred and they used this oil to light for eight days. The next year, they fixed this date and made it a festival, celebrated with praise and thanks.” (Shabbat 21b)

Everyone knows that the definition of Chanuka as a festival is based on the miracle of the cruse of oil. But what is common knowledge even to young children is questioned by many historians. This doubt arises from the absence of the story of this miracle from all early sources dealing with the Hasmonean victory. If Chanuka was indeed established as a festival because of this miracle, why is there no mention of it in the Sifrei Makkabim, in the beraita dealing with Chanuka, or in the special prayers recited on Chanuka? Why is this miracle mentioned for the very first time in a statement of the Amoraim? Moreover, many greater and more publicly visible miracles were performed for our ancestors, but no

festival was established in their honor. What, then, is the special significance and importance of the miracle of the cruse of oil?


In order to appreciate the nature of this miracle, we should examine other, similar miracles. Let us begin with the first mikdash – the mishkan.

The parasha of the mishkan does not conclude with the finishing touches to the construction of the edifice and its vessels, nor even with the commencement of the sacrifices during the seven days of “milu’im.” The whole enterprise peaks on the eighth day, “for today God is revealed to you” (Vayikra 9:4). Without this eighth day, the entire construction of the mishkan is meaningless:

“For all seven days of milu’im … the Shekhina did not rest there, and Benei Yisrael were saddened and said to Moshe, ‘Moshe Rabbeinu, all the labor that we performed [was] in order that the Shekhina should dwell amongst us…'” (Rashi).

Even after Benei Yisrael had completed all the preparations as commanded, the mishkan remained an empty shell until the moment of revelation:

“And a fire came out from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fats, and the entire nation saw and they rejoiced, and they fell upon their faces.” (Vayikra 9:22)

Correspondingly, we find in the case of the first Beit Ha- mikdash:

“And when Shlomo had finished his prayer, the fire descended from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of God filled the House … and all of Benei Yisrael saw the descent of the fire and the glory of God upon the House, and they prostrated themselves upon the floor, and bowed and thanked God for He is good, for His mercy is forever.” (Divrei Ha-Yamim II 7:1-3)

So long as God’s glory is revealed in the mikdash, it is not permissible to enter the Kodesh at will. It is instructive that immediately following the divine revelation in the mishkan, at the moment Nadav and Avihu sacrificed their ‘strange fire,’ “a fire came out from before God and consumed them” (Vayikra 10:2). However, after the destruction of the Beit Ha-mikdash, when God’s glory is no longer apparent (“for Mount Tzion which

is desolate; foxes walk there” – Eikha 5:18), strangers enter the mikdash without suffering any harm (“For she has seen Gentiles coming into the mikdash – those concerning whom You commanded, ‘They shall not come into your congregation'” ibid. 1:10).

How remote is the era of the destruction from that eighth day when Aharon’s sons were punished! Hashem’s glory, which was once manifest so clearly, is perceptible no longer. For this reason, when the nation returned from Babylon to build the second Temple, once again some sign was required to indicate that the Shekhina, as it were, had returned.

In Sefer Makkabim II (2:1) we read as follows:

“And now that our hearts desire to celebrate the day of the rededication of the altar … you shall celebrate it, like the day upon which Nechemia found the holy fire when he returned to build the mikdash … For when our fathers were exiled, the holy kohanim secretly took the fire and hid it … and it came to pass after many days that the king sent Nechemia to

Jerusalem … they could not find the fire, and found only freezing water instead … and it happened that when they offered God’s sacrifice, he commanded them to sprinkle some of the water on the wood and on the sacrifice which was upon the altar, and they did so. When they had finished, and the sun shone upon the earth and the clouds were scattered,

behold a heavenly fire ignited the sacrifice, and the entire nation surrounding it was astonished, and the kohanim and all the nation fell upon their faces … and the kohanim sang praise and thanks to God.”

Aside from this miracle which took place at the time of the rededication of the mikdash, the gemara describes another miracle which occurred daily in the mikdash and which was similar to the miracle of the cruse of oil both in terms of form as well as character:

“It was testimony to the entire world that the Shekhina rested with Israel. What was this testimony? Rav said: This refers to the western lamp (the western-most light of the menora in the Beit Ha-mikdash), which received the same amount of oil as all the other lamps, and from which the kohen would light the others, and it lasted the longest.” (Shabbat 22b)

According to the gemara (Yoma 39a), this miracle occurred even during the period of the Second Temple, up until the death of Shimon Ha-Tzaddik.

In all of the above cases, the significance of the miracle is that it bears testimony to the fact that the Shekhina dwells amongst Israel. The necessity of the sign comes about as a result of the nature of the Divine Presence in general. In order to clarify this issue, let us turn our attention to the sphere of prophecy.


The Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim (2:32) maintains that although a person may have reached the spiritual level necessary for prophecy, “it is still possible that he does not actually prophesy, and this because of the will of God.” The Rambam, as opposed to the philosophers, removes prophetic revelation from the purely intellectual sphere and defines it as a function of Divine will. The Rambam’s personal position on prophesy

notwithstanding, if we take this idea further we conclude that a person has to prepare himself to attain prophecy; he must labor and strive to attain revelation of the Shekhina, but the level attained by finite man nevertheless cannot and does not obligate a revelation of the Infinite. A person cannot “force” a prophetic revelation by natural means; the

revelation depends upon God’s grace.

On the national level, as well, the revelation of the Shekhina in the Beit Ha-mikdash is not a natural phenomenon. The construction of the mikdash by the nation of Israel, corresponding to the preparations of the prophet for prophecy, allows for – but does not obligate – revelation of the Shekhina. Ultimately, this revelation depends on God’s will. It is in light of this principle that we may understand the words of the Sifri:

“‘But only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from among all your tribes’ – [this means that you shall] inquire of the prophet [as to the exact location]. Perhaps this means that you should wait until a prophet comes and tells you [where the place is]? This cannot be the case. Therefore the Torah teaches, ‘You shall inquire as to His dwelling, and you shall come there’ – first [make the effort to] seek it and find it, and thereafter the prophet will tell (confirm).” (Sifri, Re’eh)

The nation of Israel is obligated to “seek out the mikdash,” to yearn for revelation of the Divine, but the mikdash is only built following the revelation of God’s will by the prophet.


Thus the miracle which follows the construction of the mikdash expresses the same Divine will which stands at the foundation of “and I shall dwell amongst them.” It is only through this miracle which testifies that the Shekhina dwells amongst Israel that there is any significance to the command “Let them make Me a mikdash.”

At the beginning of the period of the second Beit HaMikdash, the ‘western light’ bore faithful testimony that the Shekhina dwelt amongst Israel. But once Shimon HaTzaddik died and the Hellenist culture began infiltrating the nation, sometimes the light would remain lit and sometimes it would be extinguished (Yoma 39). This situation deteriorated until the point when the Hellenists gained the upper hand, desecrated the mikdash and

disqualified the testimony of the light.

When God took pity on His nation and the Chashmonaim prevailed, they purified the mikdash and rededicated the altar. But where was the testimony? Where was the Shekhina? If there were no heavenly sign, what would all the efforts of the Makkabim be worth? In this context, the significance of the miracle of the cruse of oil becomes apparent. After the mikdash had been defiled, this tiny cruse bore witness that the

Shekhina dwelt amongst Israel.

In light of the above it becomes clear that although the actual event which was celebrated was the rededication of the altar, our Sages understood that the significance of this rededication rested on the miracle of the cruse of oil. This miracle returned the glory of the nation to its stature from the days of Shimon Ha-Tzaddik. In the words of the Penei Yehoshua (Shabbat 21b):

“Therefore it would seem that the crux of the miracle was that it was performed only to show God’s love for them … For this reason this miracle, too, was performed for them concerning the lights, which was testimony for Israel that the Shekhina dwelt amongst them, as we have explained with regard to the western light. But after the death of Shimon Ha-Tzaddik, even the western light sometimes was extinguished. Therefore a

miracle was performed regarding this exact matter, at that time which was a time of Divine favor, in order to show that they had returned to their original status of being beloved in God’s eyes. This appears to me the correct interpretation.”

Hence, it is not surprising that the story of the miracle of the cruse of oil is absent from the Sifrei Makkabim. For it was not for this miracle that Chanuka was established, but rather for the rededication of the actual altar. But following the desecration of the mikdash by the wicked Antiokhus, the miracle of the oil represented the awaited signal from God which imbued the dedication of the altar with its significance. A close

inspection of Sifrei Ha-Makkabim reveals an emphasis of these motifs – the desecration of the mikdash by the Hellenists and its purification by the Chashmonaim.

Sefer Makkabim II opens with the story of the miracle in the days of Nechemia, during the time of the dedication of the second Beit Ha-mikdash, which bore testimony to the Shekhina’s presence. Thereafter we read the story of Heliodoros who was sent to steal God’s treasure from the mikdash:

“And he saw the glory of God, Lord of the winds, in a terrible vision … and he fell upon the ground and fainted … for the hand of God had struck him … and the entire nation praised God, for He had given honor to His mikdash …” (Makkabim II, chapter 3).

In contrast, during the time of Antiokhus, God’s glory is absent from the mikdash:

“And Antiokhus destroyed all the holy vessels with a wicked hand … and were it not for God’s anger against His nation because of their many sins, the hand of God would have struck him as it did Heliodoros when he went, by order of Silikus, to rob the treasury of the Temple. But because God did not choose His nation because of His city, but rather chose His city because of His nation, and because He watched over His nation, therefore

He watched also over the Temple.” (ibid, chapter 5)

And with the victory of the Chashmonaim, they returned and purified the Temple and rededicated the altar, and for this reason Chanuka was established:

“From God this thing came about, to purify the Temple on the very day upon which the gentiles had defiled it, which was the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev. And they celebrated a festival of eight days to God … and sang songs of praise and thanks to God Who gave them salvation, to purify His Temple. And a decree was sounded throughout the cities of Judea, to celebrate this festival each year.” (ibid., chapter 10)

Chanuka celebrates not merely the rededication of the altar, but also the glory of God which once again became manifest in the Beit Ha-mikdash. This is why Sefer Makkabim II (ch. 1) compares it to the day of the dedication of the mikdash in the time of Nechemia, when the miracle of the hidden fire occurred. On Chanuka the Chashmonaim regained the same level of God’s love as they had enjoyed at the beginning of the period of the second Beit Ha-mikdash.

The conclusion which arises from the above discussion is that there is no contradiction between Sifrei Ha-Makkabim and the version recorded by the Sages.

Sifrei Ha-Makkabim make reference to the historical event upon which Chanuka was established. From this perspective, Chanuka was indeed in honor of the rededication of the altar by the Chashmonaim, but our Sages perceived the profound significance of the moment. After the defilement of the mikdash by Antiokhus, this rededication would have been hollow without that essential heavenly signal – the miracle of the cruse of oil, which bore testimony to God’s Presence amongst Israel.

May our eyes merit seeing the return of God to Tzion with mercy, and the fulfillment of God’s promise: “And I shall build it with fire, as it is written, ‘And I shall be unto her (Jerusalem) a wall of fire round about, and My glory shall be within her'” (Bava Kama 60b).

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