> Holidays > Chanukah > Themes > Deeper Themes

The Miracle of Chanukah

November 23, 2010 | by Lawrence Kelemen

The military victory and the burning oil provide a deep lesson in self-discovery.

The goal of every Jew is to perfect our character and to develop our potential. The holidays, therefore, are set up in such a way that if we understand, follow, and connect with their flow, then by the time we reach the year's end we will have achieved the most we can in growth and the refinement of our character for that year. The holidays are a calendrical system designed to perfectly assist and direct us in our quest for growth.

When it comes to Chanukah, the question is: precisely what window of opportunity opens during these eight days, and what are we supposed to do in order to access the light of the holiday? How do we make Chanukah’s light our own personal inner light?

Let's begin by looking at four questions:

Question # 1

Everyone knows that in some way Chanukah is a celebration of the Jewish victory over the Greeks. The Greeks persecuted the Jews, the Jews resisted, and we are still here today to talk about it. The question, however, is: Why is this the only experience of Jewish survival in the face of persecution that we remember with a holiday? After all, there is no shortage of people who have tried and failed to destroy the Jews.

Even if we just look at ancient Jewish history, we might look at the Jewish encounter with the Assyrians and say that those events are just as deserving as the confrontation with Greece to be memorialized as a holiday. Think about it. The Assyrian army, the most powerful force in the world at the time, numbering some 185,000 soldiers, arrived at the gates of Jerusalem around 701 BCE. This enormous force was encamped below Jerusalem and poised to unleash a holocaust. Their intention was to slaughter every man, woman and child in the city.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, all 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died in their sleep the night before the planned assault.

Other salvations were never elevated to the status of a holiday.

Of course there is a disagreement about exactly how this happened. Herodotus mentions something about an outbreak of bubonic plague. The Jewish historians told a different story – how an angel of the Lord went out and smote 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. But whatever it was, something astounding took place on that night. Nonetheless, that salvation was never elevated to the status of a holiday.

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The same is true for the events of 135 CE when Bar Kochba led his revolt; or the survival of the Jews throughout the period of the Crusades; or the Inquisition. They never became holidays. Even in more recent terms, when the Soviet Union fell and millions of Jews were liberated from a regime that was determined to wipe out Judaism, it never occurred to anybody that we should make a holiday.

Or perhaps there should be some sort of catch-all holiday marking the ongoing miracle of Jewish survival despite the relentless efforts of anti-Semites throughout the ages. Perhaps we should celebrate the Jewish refusal to succumb to the law of evolution of nations that grinds all other nations out of existence and that has constantly put pressure on the Jews, yet has never been successful.

So question #1 is, why is the Jewish victory over the Greeks in 164 BCE the one event that we commemorate?

Question #2

It is very tempting to answer question #1 in the same way the Sages do, in one of the few Talmudic passages that actually mentions Chanukah. The Talmud asks the following question: "What exactly is Chanukah?" This is an odd question, because you would think that if anyone knows what Chanukah is about, it would be the Sages of the Talmud. What's more, they never ask "What's Passover?" or "What's Purim?" How come they had such a problem with Chanukah?

Rashi, the Biblical and Talmudic commentator par excellence, comes to the rescue and explains the Talmud's question as follows: "Exactly what was the miracle that led to Chanukah being instituted as a holiday?" The implication of this question is that there was more than one event that one might consider to be miraculous, but only one has satisfied the Sages' criteria for a miracle worthy of a holiday.

To that query the Talmud answers: "Our rabbis taught that the 25th of Kislev begins the eight days of Chanukah. On those days eulogies are forbidden. Why? Because when the Greeks entered into the Holy Temple, they made impure all of the pure oils that were on reserve to be used in the Menorah." The Talmud then goes on to report that when the Hasmonean family triumphed over the Greeks, they only found one jar of oil that was still sealed with a seal of the High Priest, that was entirely free of impurity, and could therefore be used in the Menorah.

We are also told that this one jar of oil was only enough to burn for one night. And then comes the grand conclusion. "That night there was a miracle and they were able to light a small vial of oil, and a miracle happened and the candles burned for eight days."

What we learn from this is that in the eyes of our Sages, when a little jar of oil burns for seven days longer than expected, this is an occurrence worthy of the title "miracle." But when a vastly outnumbered band of ill-equipped Jews defeats the greatest military force in the world, that doesn't rise to the level of the miraculous.

This could possibly answer our first question, because although much of Jewish history could be viewed as miraculous, only Chanukah had the great miracle of the oil. The problem with this answer is that it begs another question: Why only in the conflict with Greece was there a miracle of lights? Why didn't a similar miracle take place at any other time in Jewish history?

Question #3

It would be one thing if the Talmud said that two miracles took place at the time of Chanukah, one a military victory and the other the burning of the oil. That, however, is not the Talmud's position. Rather the Talmud asserts that there was only one miracle – the oil! So question #3 is: "Why isn't the military victory considered a miracle at all?"

Question #4

Consider the special text found in the prayer book, known as "Al Hanisim," that relates to Chanukah. Throughout the entire text, there is not a single word about oil miraculously burning for eight days. One would think that the whole holiday of Chanukah revolves around a miraculous military victory where God “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, etc.”

So question #4 is: Why, when the Talmud focuses only on the miracle of the oil, does the prayer book speak only about the military victory?

Thinking Again

To answer these questions, we will need to look at three issues. Then the answers will fall into place.

1) What was the Greek view of human nature, and what was the essence of Greek culture?

2) What are miracles really all about?

3) What is the Jewish view of human nature, and what are the Jewish people really all about?

Related Article: Chanukah in the Soviet Gulag

Issue #1:

The Greeks, more than any other nation in history, represented the natural, physical world. Religiously they were Pantheists; they literally worshipped nature, idolized the human body, and regarded the survival of the fittest as a holy principle. The Greeks believed that since a man in battle was more powerful than a woman, men were somehow worthier than women. This veneration of the male is part of the reason why homosexuality was the Greek ideal.

Also, because the strong, human form and survival of the fittest were core values, when a baby was born with any sort of defect, physical or mental, it was left to die of exposure. The Greeks actually had religious rituals for killing such children. They would take developmentally disabled babies and smash them against the rocks or throw them into the sea.

In Greece, athletes were their priests, the gymnasium was the temple, and the strongest and fittest men were by far the most highly regarded people in society.

When the Jews resisted the Greeks, this was not just a case of one tiny nation standing up to a much larger nation. There was something more fundamental, more profound taking place. The Jews had an altogether different perspective on nature, and human nature, than the Greeks. The Jews had a bedrock belief in the supernatural, in a God that transcended nature, not many gods who operated within nature.

The Jews viewed the physical body as a part of nature that needed to be confronted, refined, and elevated. The challenge of human nature for the Jew was to harness physicality in the service of a higher ideal, not to be enamored with the body in and of itself. When the Jews went to war against the Greeks, this was a battle between a nation defined by the supernatural against a nation that was the embodiment of nature itself.

Issue #2:

Not all miracles are alike; in fact, there are actually two categories of miracles.

There is a famous story in the Talmud about Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. One Friday afternoon, the daughter of Rabbi Chanina set up her Shabbos candles and lit them. Then, after they were lit, she realized that she had inadvertently used vinegar instead of oil. When her father came home from synagogue she was very depressed.

"Papa, I grabbed vinegar instead of the oil, and when the wicks burn down, the lights will go out."

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said, "My daughter, He who makes oil burn, will make vinegar burn." The Talmud concludes by saying that the vinegar candles burned throughout the entire Shabbos.

With this story, the Talmud is telling us that it is actually a miracle when oil burns. "He who makes oil burn will make vinegar burn." If oil burns for no other reason than that is the Will of God, then vinegar, water, or Coca-Cola could burn, too – if that is what God wants.

It turns out that there are two classes of miracles. “Class one” miracles are unmistakable. They're very big and very out of the ordinary. The Hebrew word for this kind of miracle is nes. The word nes literally means a sign or banner, and class one miracles call out to us and say, "Hey, folks, good morning, wake up, it's Me, God. You know, the One who created the world in the first place and who still runs the show." Every big nes is a banner that tells us that just like we know that God splits the sea, it's also God who "makes the oil burn."

When a phenomenon occurs again and again on a predictable basis, it no longer seems special.

Think about it. Why is it that when I pick up a pen and drop it, the pen falls? Of course you could say gravity, but that just begs the question: Why does gravity exist at all? For that matter, why does the earth spin? Why do hearts beat? Why are babies born? The bottom line is, the whole thing is a nes, a miracle. It is just that when a phenomenon happens again and again on a regular and predictable basis, we slap a label on that says "gravity," as if we have explained something. And once that label is in place, the occurrence will never again catch our attention or seem very special at all.

The principle is that there are two classes of miracles: class one are the "banner" miracles that catch our attention. Class two are those miracles that are so elegantly woven into the fabric of nature that we think of them as, well, natural.

Issue # 3:

Life is a war. A war between the body and the soul. A war in which the soul appears to have little chance of victory. But when it comes to trying to overcome the urges of the body and live like a soul, no matter how many setbacks we have, they aren't failures. Every single attempt at overcoming our physical nature, even "failed" attempts, actually contain powerful sparks of victory within them. And, these sparks have the ability, over time, to join forces and enable us to ultimately rise above our physical nature and embrace our transcendent nature. Our super nature.

Answering Our Questions

With all this in mind, with an understanding that with the Greeks we were fighting nature; with the understanding that there are different kinds of miracles in the world, and with an understanding of how we overcome our nature by continuously trying even when we fail, we can now answer the questions we first posed.

In 164 BCE, the Jews, representing the supernatural will of the Torah, went to war against the Greeks who represented the deification of nature. Picture the scene: The Greeks were standing on the highways with AK47's and were slaughtering Jews right and left. They had already taken the Old City of Jerusalem. There was no hope. It was finished. And how did we fight back? We gave our baby boys a bris milah, we kept Shabbos, and we sanctified the new month. We said, "You'll see. We will be the last ones standing."

The Greeks must have laughed and gone right on killing. This war went on from 322 BCE all the way down to 164 BCE. Nonetheless, the Jews kept up their pitiful revolt – and kept risking, and giving, their lives for Judaism. The Greeks probably thought we were crazy. "Give it up already, pack up, go to New York. Your resistance is futile. Don't you Jews realize it's over?" they probably said.

And the Jews just kept saying to themselves, "Every mitzvah adds light to the supernatural flame. Even if we fail today, and fail again tomorrow, there is potential stored up in all our efforts, so that one day all this potential will explode in a burst of light and disperse the darkness."

As the Talmud says, the essence of Greece is darkness.

The events of Chanukah were accompanied by the miracle of lights because that was the perfect representation of a battle between the light of the Jews, and the darkness of the Greeks. The supernatural versus the natural.

Talmud and Siddur

Turning now to how the Sages of the Talmud related to the miracle of Chanukah. They understood very well what was a miracle and what was not a miracle. They also understood the deep spiritual principle that if we keep trying, we cannot lose. If you keep making one effort after the next, you will eventually see results.

The Maccabees knew that eventually the Greeks would be defeated.

They understood that this reality is a miracle clothed in nature. When the Talmud asks, "What was the miracle on which Chanukah is based?" they were talking in terms of a class one out-of-the-ordinary miracle. This is why they identify the miracle of the oil and not the military victory. To them, the military victory was something to be expected, it was a "natural" miracle they knew they could count on. Because they knew if the Jews just kept resisting, kept fighting, kept observing their Judaism, eventually the Greeks would be defeated. Lights burning for eight days – that was unexpected. A rag-tag Jewish force defeating the mighty Greek war machine – that they expected.

Which brings us to the text in the siddur. Recall that in the special Chanukah prayer, Al Hanisim, we find no mention of the miracle of the oil, and only reference to the military victory. To understand this, we need to point out a fundamental difference between the Talmud and the siddur. The Talmud is a document that discusses ancient events. It may be a history book with insights that are relevant to our lives today, but its frame of reference is historical. In historical terms, the unique event of oil burning miraculously for eight days is what caught the Talmud's attention. Wars? They happen all the time.

The siddur, on the other hand, has nothing to do with history. The siddur is about today, literally. It's about this morning, this afternoon, and this evening. The siddur is about a living, dynamic, unfolding relationship between every Jew and God. It's a "real time" conversation. It's about the present, not the past. In the siddur, the only kind of miracle mentioned is that which is ongoing, taking place right now. The miracle mentioned in the siddur is the one that is eternally relevant to the war between nature and us: the principle that if we keep fighting, we eventually will overcome our nature.

We know that the Jewish people do not reckon with nature. We know that we can't stop trying even if our efforts seem to fly in the face of what seems reasonable or rational. Nature is rational, the Jewish people is not. Is the return of the Jewish people after 2,000 years rational or natural? Three hundred years ago, would anyone in their right mind have thought that the Israel of today could ever be possible?

Back on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we all made commitments. As winter sets in, those days of inspiration seem like long ago. Our commitments are beginning to wane. This is the time when we feel like giving up. By this point in the year, we are starting to tell ourselves, "I was high, and I made unreasonable commitments. It's just too much for me."

Yet just the opposite is true. Chanukah is the ideal time to grab those commitments and run with them. Chanukah is when we think about the potential stored up in every effort. Nature is begging us to give up, to be realistic, to realize that the task of growing in the way we hoped is far beyond our ability. The response to this is Chanukah. Chanukah says: Nature can be vanquished. What seems to be impossible, isn't.

And as Jews, we are supposed to believe in and count on miracles.

Excerpted from Inspiring Lights (Afikim)


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