An Addendum to the Reflections
The Chanukah lights miracle:
a new, more logical solution to the problem
Postscript on historicity
During the eight days of the Chanukah festival, or festival of lights, Jews light candles every evening. The reason for this, tradition tells us, is that when in the 2nd Cent. BCE the Maccabees drove their Seleucid enemies out from the Temple, they wished to immediately resume its regular services, including the daily lighting of the menorah. However, they found only one sealed container, with enough pure olive oil for only one day’s burning. They knew that it would take them eight days to resume a regular supply of oil. They nevertheless lit the menorah and miraculously the available oil lasted eight days.
This story is mentioned in the Talmud, in tractate Shabbat, page 21b: “The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession”. In a commentary to the later halakhic (i.e. Jewish law) work called Arba Turim, vol. II, chapt. 670, §2, R. Joseph Caro (also known as the Beit Yossef) raises a logical problem in relation to these reported events. If there was oil for one day and it miraculously burned for eight days, why do we celebrate the festival during eight and not merely seven days? He proposes three hypothetical scenarios to solve the problem, but upon closer examination all three are found wanting in some respect, casting some doubt on the whole thing. The three scenarios proposed and their difficulties are as follows:
1. One possibility is that the kohanim (priests), assessing the situation realistically, decided from the start that they would pour one eighth of the regular measure of oil into the menorah lamps every day, so that the one-day oil supply would last eight days though only for part of each night. As it happened, the one eighth measure burned through the whole night every night for eight nights. This solution is interesting because it proposes an eightfold miracle. The main difficulty here is that by not filling up the menorah vessels they were supposedly not fulfilling the legal or at least traditional requirement for this ritual. Another criticism leveled is that such a calculated act would have implied uncharacteristic lack of faith (at least on the first day, before the miracle was first manifested). Another traditional explanation of this first scenario is that the kohanim divided the available oil into eight parts with the expectation that each part would miraculously last all night; and the difficulty with that solution is that it is in principle not proper to deliberately rely on miracles.
2. An alternative solution proposed is that the kohanim poured all the oil they had on the first day into the menorah cups, as normally required, and (a) the miracle was that the oil cruse was not emptied as they poured oil from it but remained full all the time (as in the miracle by Elisha mentioned in II Kings 4:4), or perhaps (b) the level of oil in it miraculously rose up again during the night so that it was full again by the morning, or perhaps (c) it refilled entirely in the morning after the oil in the menorah was burnt out so they could pour oil from it again. This happened again on the second day, on the third, etc. – and thus they were able to make the menorah burn normally for eight nights. However, here the main difficulty is that this scenario implies only seven miraculous events: for either the first day or the eighth day must be regarded as non-miraculous. In other words, this putative solution does not actually solve the problem initially posed! (A possible reply to this objection would be to say that there were eight days of miraculous oil, and a full measure of oil was left for the ninth day – but then we might ask why was a superfluous eighth miracle performed?)
3. Another proposed solution is that the kohanim poured all the oil they had on the first day into the menorah lamps, and the miracle was that (a) the menorah flames did not at all burn out the oil, so that a full measure of oil was available in the menorah the next day, or perhaps (b) the level of oil rose up again in the menorah every morning when all the previous night’s oil was burnt up. This happened again the next day, etc. – so that the menorah could be lit for eight nights as required. This solution is a bit of a compromise between the previous two, in that it implies that the presumed legal requirement of a full menorah was obeyed every day (unlike the first scenario) and that the miracle actually occurred in the menorah (unlike the second scenario, which rather places the supernatural oil production in the oil cruse). However, this third solution has the same main difficulty as the preceding one, namely that it implies only seven miraculous events – so it is not an effective solution to the problem posed. Either the first day or the eighth must be viewed as non-miraculous, unless we accept (as one rabbi has argued to me) that the eighth miracle consisted in the timely cessation of miraculous oil production!
While meditating on these things, I realized that there is a fourth solution, which to my knowledge was not considered by the Beit Yossef or other commentators – a solution more logical than the three he proposed. It is this:
4. The kohanim poured all the oil they had on the first day into the menorah (as legally or traditionally required to) and found the next morning that only one eighth of it had burned out. So they extinguished the flames and left the unburned oil (7/8th) in place, igniting it again in the evening. The next morning they found the same thing had happened and repeated their service. And again the next day and the next, so that the original oil lasted eight nights! This new solution resembles the first, in that the rate of burning is one eighth of the normal rate and after the first night the lamps are lit even though not full of oil, but it is better than the first in that, full of faith, they poured the full measure of oil into the menorah on the first day and then let Hashem (G-d) take care of the subsequent events miraculously (by slowing the normal burning process). Note that a service was still required of them every day (snuffing out and rekindling the lamps). And this new solution is better than the second and third in that it implies eight days of miracle, and not just seven like them – so it really does answer the original question. It is such a simple, obvious and elegant solution to the problem that one wonders why matters were made so complicated by previous commentators!
This fourth solution seems to me the most plausible, granting that that the Chanukah lights miracle occurred. But an acquaintance of mine, who prefers to remain anonymous, has suggested a fifth solution, which does not assume any such miracle occurred, as follows:
5. The kohanim may have used slower burning wicks with a daily one-eighth measure of oil as in the first scenario or using full lamps to begin with as in the fourth scenario! This is a neat solution, assuming the required shortening of wicks was halakhically and physically possible (and that they were able to accurately predict the length of wick needed to retard oil consumption). This hypothesis recognizes that not just one but two variables affect the consumption of oil: namely, the quantity of oil used and the type or length of wick. Of course, this is not such a nice solution from a religious point of view, in that it denies the miracle parameter given as a premise by the Talmud. If this naturalistic suggestion is nonetheless preferred, it must be supposed that what we are celebrating by lighting the Chanukah lights is simply the miracle of victory in battle, as mentioned in our prayers throughout the festival.
Whatever all that may be, I take this opportunity to pray Hashem to make many miracles for the Jewish people today, especially to save Israel from its many internal and external false friends, opponents and enemies. Written and distributed during Chanukah 5770.
(With many thanks to R. Mendel Pevzner for his recent lecture on this topic, which revived my interest in it, and to R. Yacov Holzman for his kind help in researching and translating relevant sources.)
In writing the above account of the miracle of Chanukah, my motive was not to argue as to its historicity. It was (as always) primarily to teach logic. I wanted to help unravel a logical problem long known in Jewish tradition, while staying within the bounds set for Talmudic discussions. The method was to visualize the three known alternative solutions in as much detail as possible and consider their consequences, and then to see if additional solutions could be suggested. This yielded the fourth solution. A fifth solution, suggested by an acquaintance, was outside the Talmudic bounds, but quite legitimate as a scientific explanation.
However, reacting to the above article, a reader wrote to me suggesting that the explanation for the eight days celebration was just a wish by the Maccabees to celebrate belatedly the festivals of Succoth and Shimini Chag Atzeret, which they had missed due to being busy fighting. She offered as evidence 2 Maccabees 10:6-8 “And they celebrated it [the purification of the sanctuary] for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year”.
But to my mind this statement does not contradict the Talmudic account. That year, they celebrated Succoth late, but it was obviously not their intent to shift this biblically ordained festival forevermore to the 25th of Kislev. The last verse makes clear they instituted a new festival (viz. Chanukah) for future years, in remembrance of this historic occasion. It is not logically excluded, though not mentioned here, that one of their motives may have been to remind us of the miracle recounted in the Talmud, that one day’s supply of oil sufficed to keep the menorah burning during those first eight days. It is still of course quite true that we may reasonably doubt the very occurrence of a miracle. Faith is required to believe in it.
It is true that the historical books of the Maccabees do not mention the miracle described centuries later in the Talmud, and that is of course suspicious. Looking further into the matter, I found the following: 1 Maccabees 1:21 informs us that the menorah was earlier stolen by Antiochus IV Epiphanes: “He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the menorah for the light, and all its utensils”. In 1 Maccabees 4:49, we learn that, after the Maccabees had purified the temple, “They made new holy vessels, and brought the menorah, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple”. Presumably, this means that a new menorah was made at this point; this must have taken some time to do. In 1 Maccabees 4:50, we are told: “Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the menorah, and these gave light in the temple”. This is confirmed in 2 Maccabees 10:3 they “set forth… lights”.
The Jewish revolt against Seleucid domination occurred in 175-135 BCE, roughly a century and a half after the conquest of Judea by the Greeks under Alexander the Great. After the latter’s death, his successors split the empire in two; the Seleucid half was based in Syria and included Judea in its dominions. The Temple was liberated in 165 BCE, but the war continued for many years after. The first book of Maccabees is thought to have been written quite soon after the events it describes, sometime in 135-63 BCE, possibly circa 100 BCE, which gives it considerable authority. It seems to have been originally written in Hebrew, by a Jew living in the Holy Land; but only a Greek translation has survived. The Rabbis did not include it in the Jewish canon, though it is quite pious and patriotic, possibly because it seems to have been written by a Sadducee. The second book of Maccabees was apparently written rather later in the 1st Cent. BCE and directly in Greek by a Jew living in Egypt. It seems to be a much more second hand and revised account of events. Compared to the first book, it is less of a history and more of a religious tract. In short, it is less reliable, but is still considered to have some value as history.
Be all that as it may, it is not unthinkable that, however well informed the first author may have been on many other matters, he may still not have been privy to the information about the miracle of the lights that the Talmud later reported. And if this is true of the earlier author, it is all the more true of the later one. In other words, there is still room for faith regarding this report.
 The Beit Yossef explains this eight day delay as either (a) due to their being ritually impure for temple service and needing seven days to get purified plus one more day to gather and press olives, or (b) due to their having to send for oil far away, a journey of four days there and four days back.
 A question arises regarding the wording of this sentence. Is the subject of “it fed the holy lamp” the vial or the oil? If we assume it is the vial, then the most fitting scenario would be the one labeled as number two; but this scenario leads to the difficulty of 7 days instead of 8. Therefore, we must assume “it” refers to the oil.
 It is not sure where the Beit Yossef gleaned this information. A rabbi I asked said that the sources for two of the proposed scenarios are thought to have perhaps been the Ritva and the Tosefot R. Peretz.
 Maybe they were halakhically permitted to do so, since the Beit Yossef does not comment negatively on this practice here. Perhaps the legal requirement to fill up the menorah before lighting it is merely derabbanan (rabbinic) and not deoraita (biblical). I am told the menorah ritual is not counted as one of the 613 mitzvot (commandments). The Torah passage concerning it, viz. Exodus 27:20-1, is very brief and does not answer such questions. See also Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Avodah, Daily and Additional Sacrifices, chapt. 3, law 3, which mentions daily cleaning of the menorah. This matter needs to be further clarified.
 Someone suggested to me that perhaps they filled only one menorah cup for each night, rather than partially fill all seven of them every day. However, upon reflection, this is not a better hypothesis, in that they would not manage to completely fill that one cup each day, since one eighth part of the oil daily cannot fill up one seventh part of the menorah (and this is all the more true if we take into consideration the continually burning western lamp – see later footnote regarding that)! Not to mention that lighting only one branch of the menorah per night would probably not be halakhically acceptable.
 If (a) the cruse did not empty as oil was poured from it, then the miracle occurred for the first seven days, and on the eighth day there was no such miracle. If (b) the cruse emptied when poured out and refilled miraculously during the whole night, the miracle likewise occurred in the first seven nights, but not on the eighth; whereas if (c) the cruse was miraculously refilled only in the morning, after all the oil was burnt out, then the miracle occurred on the last seven days, not on the first day.
 I visualize (a) the lamps as having remained full of oil all night for the first seven nights, rather than assume as usually done the more visible miracle that (b) the oil burnt away during the night and then rose up again in the morning. Either way, the oil burnt away naturally on the eighth night, and did not rise up again the next morning. In hypothesis (a) the miracle occurred all through the night on every one of the first seven nights, whereas in hypothesis (b) the miracle occurred at the end of every night (i.e. in the morning) and therefore seven miracles occurred starting on the second day and ending on the eighth. Note that in case (a) the kohanim needed to extinguish the lamps in the mornings and light them again in the evenings, whereas in case (b) the lamps were naturally extinguished and the service consisted only in rekindling them.
 I assume this hypothesis is a chidush (innovation) – if not, forgive my ignorance and tell me about it!
 One final issue to mention parenthetically. After writing all the above, I found out about the “western lamp” that (at least according to some opinions) had to be kept alight continually (i.e. during the day as well as the night). This was one of the branches of the menorah – either the one on its west side or its central one (depending on how the menorah was oriented; see Menachot 98b). Let us briefly consider the implications of this additional factor on the various hypotheses above treated. Presumably, an oil cruse like the one the kohanim found contained enough oil for one day of normal service – i.e. enough too for the daytime western lamp. In that case, in the first solution the kohanim simply divided the oil into more fractions, but each fraction (including that intended for the western lamp) miraculously did its usual job for eight days instead of just one; more precisely, the continual lamp would receive its allotted portion of oil twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. In the second solution, the oil cruse always miraculously provided the oil required, including that for the western lamp. In the third solution, the full measure of oil was poured on the first morning into the continual lamp, and at the evening service it was miraculously either still full or it rose up again. In the fourth solution, the rate of burning must have been miraculously slower in the western lamp than in the others, since it had to burn twice as much, i.e. both day and night.
 No mention anywhere in these books, note, of a single leftover cruse of oil or that the oil it contained lasted eight days. One would think such a miracle would have been mentioned. Confronted with that criticism, a rabbi once replied to me that miracles were so common in those days that it was not felt necessary to record them. However, one can reply: how would he know for sure? To say so is just an act of faith.