Chanukahs true miracle: everlasting sustenance from God


Genesis 37:1-40:23

Amos 2:6-3:8

Among the opening lyrics of Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song is a quick summation of the holiday: “Chanukah is the festival of lights. Instead of one day of presents, we get eight crazy nights!”

While the notion of giving Chanukah presents has little basis in Jewish tradition (giving money or “gelt” does in fact go back a ways, but the gifting is almost certainly absorbed from the surrounding culture), the lights are what make Chanukah the holiday that it is. When the Maccabees took back the Jewish Temple from Greek domination, they found only one unsullied cruse of oil and lit the menorah with it. There was only enough for one day but it miraculously burned for eight, and so today we light candles or oil each night to recall and celebrate the miracle that occurred.

It seems strange then, that the miracle of the oil is downplayed in the special prayer for Chanukah. Looking at the liturgy, the text of “Al-Hanissim” focuses almost exclusively on the military victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks. Yet the miracle of the oil gets only a passing reference at the end of the prayer. Why ignore the most recognizable and obviously miraculous aspect of the holiday?

Furthermore, why commemorate this miracle at all? There have been many miracles in Jewish history that were recorded for posterity in the Torah and other texts, but we don’t make holidays out of every one of them. Oil lasting for eight days was great for us, but why single this event out for public celebration?

The Maharal of Prague explains that the lesser-known miracle of Chanukah — that being “the few overcoming the many” — is in fact the primary miracle of the holiday. The Greeks maintained a large, well-trained army. With HaShem’s help, this small band of Maccabees was able to defeat and drive them out and ensure our religious freedom.

This focus helps to explain our celebration of the oil. After the military victory, it would have been easy to falsely attribute the victory to Yehudah Maccabee’s military genius, guerilla warfare tactics or some other “natural cause.” The significance of the miracle of the oil lies in its demonstration through overt miracle that HaShem’s hand was present and that is what saved the Jewish people. We could not have done it on our own, but as the oil showed us, HaShem was there for us in the biggest miracle: our battle against a powerful enemy determined to limit our devotion to Jewish tradition.

The Maharal continues on to explain the symbolism of the numbers at the heart of this celebration. In Jewish tradition the number seven represents natural cycles, such as the week, sabbatical years, etc. The Greeks represented and had a hold over the natural world (think Olympics, astronomy and scientific study, to name a few examples). But the Jewish people and its survival are above nature, and so they are represented by the number eight, which is beyond seven.

The Greeks were successful in contaminating the main section of the Temple (that represented the world) but couldn’t contaminate the Holy of Holies, which was the home of the Ark with the Torah and the Ten Commandments, which transcend nature. The Talmud specifies that the discovered oil had been sealed by the High Priest, an individual who serves a role above the world of nature. Accordingly, while the menorah in the main (worldly) section of the Temple only had seven branches, the Chanukah candelabrum that we use has eight because it symbolizes the transcendence of our eternal promise from HaShem.

The notion that the miraculously long-lasting oil was there to remind us that our victory came from HaShem also relates to one of the most beautiful explanations of the dreidel. On Chanukah, we reach down from above and turn the dreidel in celebration, just as Hashem “reached down” and turned the world and its events to favor our small people.

Our true strength has never been our numbers or military prowess, but rather the assistance that we receive from above when we face powerful enemies to stand up for what we believe is right.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].