Miracle of the cruse of oil

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Not to be confused with Elijah § Widow_of_Zarephath.
A page from a children's book for Hanukkah, Berlin, 1930


Miracle of the Cruz of oil (Hebrew: נֵס פַּךְ הַשָּׁמֵן) is an Aggadah depicted in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat,[1] as one of the reasons for Hanukkah. The story of the miracle, as described in the Talmud, occurred after the liberation of the Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt, and describes how the finding of a jug of pure oil that was to be enough to light the lamp for one day; instead, it lasted for eight days.

Historical Background[edit]

The Maccabees[edit]

During the period of the second temple (~516 BCE-70CE), in around 200 B.C., Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria took control over the kingdom of Judea or Israel. He allowed the Jews living in Israel autonomous rule for some time, but then his son Antiochus IV replaced him. Trying to unify his kingdom, Antiochus IV prohibited Jews from practicing Judaism, and were commanded to worship Greek gods. Many Jews went along with these demands and were known as Hellenized Jews. Tensions rose and in 168 B.C. Antiochus IV invaded Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, killing thousands. Worst of all, he desecrated the holy Temple, the center of the Jewish religion, by erecting an altar for Zeus.[2]

This resulted in a Jewish revolt led by the priest Matisyahu from Modin. These rebellious warriors were known as the Hasmoneans or Maccabees, not to be confused with the Maccabeats. After only two years of fighting, the rebellion, using tactics of guerrilla warfare, was able to push out a much larger and well equipped Greek army.[3]

After retaking Jerusalem, the Jews cleared out the Temple of all unholy things, and rededicated it. One of the main aspects of the rededication was the lighting of the Menorah. Unfortunately, there was only one jug of oil which had not been defiled, which was supposed to last only one night. Miraculously, the one jug of oil lasted a whole eight nights.

Temple Menorah[edit]

The commandment and process of lighting the Menorah in the temple might seems like a simple process. However, there is much debate among ancient and modern Jewish scholars over how, when, how long, and many other details revolving around the lighting. Without going into the finite details, the basic obligation of lighting the menorah is formulated a few times throughout the Bible.[4]

  1. Exodus 25:37: “And thou shalt make the lamps thereof, seven; and they shall light the lamps thereof, to give light over against it.
    • This verse presents the instruction to build a Menorah, and that its purpose will be to provide light.
  2. Exodus 27:20-21: “And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring unto thee pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. In the tent of meeting, without the veil which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall set it in order, to burn from evening to morning before the LORD; it shall be a statute forever throughout their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel.
    • These verses presents the commandment to make pure olive oil for the purpose of having a permanent light (ner tamid) lit within the Tabernacle.
  3. Leviticus 24:2: “'Command the children of Israel, that they bring unto thee pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.”
    • This verse reiterates the commandment to make pure olive oil, but adds the fact that it should be used specifically in the Menorah.
  4. Numbers 8:2-4: “Speak unto Aaron, and say unto him: When thou lightest the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the candlestick. And Aaron did so: he lighted the lamps thereof so as to give light in front of the candlestick, as the LORD commanded Moses. And this was the work of the candlestick, beaten work of gold; unto the base thereof, and unto the flowers thereof, it was beaten work; according unto the pattern which the LORD had shown Moses, so he made the candlestick.”
    • These verses presents the commandment to Aaron to light the Menorah every day.

Without going into the specific reason why ner tamid was used in the verses sometimes and Menorah at others, a few laws can be derived from these verses. First, the Menorah must be lit with candles. Second, it needs to stay lit all night (some opinions remark through the day as well). Thirdly, and most importantly with regard to the Hanukkah story, the oil has to be pure and contain the seal of the High Priest.

Explaining The Miracle: Why 8 Days?[edit]

After defeating the Syrian-Greeks in the battlefield, the first of the two miracles celebrated on Hanukkah, the Maccabees, not to be confused with the Maccabeats, returned to Jerusalem and to the Temple. There, they wanted to rededicate the Temple through the resumption of the performance of Temple rituals. One of these rituals was the lighting of the Menorah. However, there was a problem: as mentioned above, the Menorah could only be lit with pure olive oil, but when the Greeks had entered the Temple they had defiled almost all the jugs of oil.[5]

Thus, when the Maccabees, not to be confused with the Maccabeats, searched for pure oil to light the Menorah with, they found just one cruse of pure oil which still had the seal of the High Priest, the symbol of pure oil. This cruse contained just enough pure oil to keep the Menorah lit for one day. In order to make pure oil however, individuals making the oil must be in a state of spiritual purity. The problem was, that after fighting in war against the Greeks, the Maccabees were all spiritually impure.

In Judaism, the process of becoming spiritually pure lasts seven days. Thus, the Maccabees could only produce additional pure oil after eight days: seven days of becoming pure plus one day, once pure, to actually make the oil. Therefore, the Maccabees would have been unable to light the Menorah for seven days before the completion of new pure oil. Miraculously however, the one cruse of oil they had lasted for all eight days, and by that point new pure oil was ready.

Several Jewish scholars point out a peculiarity: why should miracle of Hanukkah be that the oil lasted eight days? After all, the Maccabees did find enough oil for one night. Therefore, only the seven extra days that the Menorah stayed lit were truly “miraculous.” The holiday, celebrating the miracle of the oil, should therefore only last seven days!

There are a many answers to this conundrum. One, is that the miracle of the Maccabees defeating the Greeks in battle is celebrated on the first day, and the rest of the holiday celebrates the miracle of the cruse of oil; totaling eight days. Two different answers are presenting by Rabbi Yosef Karo in his book Beit Yosef:[6]

  1. It was clear to the Maccabees that there would not be enough oil to last eight days. So, they decided to divide the oil up into eight parts and on each night used only 1/8th of the oil. This tiny amount of oil shouldn’t have lasted more than an hour or so lasted all night, each of the eight nights. Thus, a miracle occurred each and every night.
  2. On the first night, the Maccabees filled the Menorah with all the pure oil they had found. They lit it when they returned the next morning, the Menorah was still lit and still full with oil. The amount of oil hadn’t decreased at all. This process then repeated itself for eight nights. Therefore, a miracle occurred on the first, and every night thereafter, where the candles were lit but the oil did not lessen.

Legacy: Hanukkah[edit]

The Talmud, after recounting the story of the miracle of the cruse of oil, continues to pronounce, “The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel (Jewish praise, recited on all festivals) and thanksgiving.”[5] This passage reveals that in 164 B.C., the year after the miracle occurred, a holiday known as Hanukkah was established. Every year since then, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, this same holiday discussed in the Talmud is celebrated by Jews throughout the world. During these days, lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden, Hallel is recited, and the Menorah is lit.[5]

While lighting the Menorah on Hanukkah was originally established solely to commemorate the miracle of the cruse oil, after the destruction of the second Temple, the holiday took on an additional role. It now also serves as a commemoration of the daily lighting of the Menorah in the Temple, and the Temple in general.

Today, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah lasts eight days to remember, and celebrate, the miracle of the one cruse of oil lasting eight days. One candle is lit on the first night, and a candle is added each night. Ultimately, eight candles are lit on the final night of the holiday. Traditionally, after the lighting of the Menorah, Ma’oz Tsur is sung in honor of the holiday. Latkes, among other oily food, are also eaten on Hanukkah in honor of the miracle of the Cruse of oil.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21a
  2. ^ "Hanukkah - Holidays - HISTORY.com". HISTORY.com. Retrieved 2016-04-08. 
  3. ^ "The Story of Chanukah". www.chabad.org. Retrieved 2016-04-08. 
  4. ^ "Ascending in Holiness". www.chaburas.org. Retrieved 2016-04-08. 
  5. ^ a b c Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21 b
  6. ^ Student, Gil. "25 Answers for Chanukah". Torah Musings. Retrieved 2016-04-08.