Miracle of the cruse of oil
Miracle of the cruse of oil (Hebrew: נֵס פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן) is an Aggadah depicted in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 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.
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. He allowed the Jews living in Judea 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 commanded them to worship Greek gods. Many Jews went along with these demands and were known as Hellenized Jews. Tensions rose and in 168 BCE Antiochus IV invaded Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, killing thousands, and erected an altar for Zeus in the Holy Temple.
This resulted in a Jewish revolt led by the priest Matityahu of Modiin. These rebels were known as the Hasmoneans or Maccabees. After two years of guerrilla warfare, they were able to push out a much larger and well equipped Greek army.
After retaking Jerusalem, the Jews cleared out the Temple and rededicated it. One of the main aspects of the rededication was the lighting of the Menorah. However, there remained one cruse of oil which had not been defiled, and contained enough oil to last only one night. Miraculously, the one cruse of oil lasted eight nights.
The commandment and process of lighting the Menorah in the temple remains under debate among ancient and modern Jewish scholars as to the duration and circumstances around lighting the menorah. The basic obligation of lighting the menorah is formulated a few times throughout the Bible.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
A few concrete rules can be derived from these verses. Firstly, the menorah must be lit with candles. Secondly, it needs to stay lit all night (some opinions remark throughout the day as well). Thirdly, and most importantly with regard to Hanukkah, the oil has to be pure and contain the seal of the High Priest.
Significance of the 8 days
After defeating the Syrian-Greeks in the battlefield, the first of the two miracles celebrated on Hanukkah, the Maccabees 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 the Menorah could only be lit with pure olive oil. When the Greeks entered the Temple they had defiled almost all the jugs of oil.
As the Maccabees 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. As a result of fighting against the Greeks, the Maccabees were deemed spiritually impure, and therefore could not make pure oil.
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 including 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, the one cruse of oil had lasted for all eight days, and by that point new pure oil was ready.
Several Jewish scholars have pointed out that Hanukkah should only last seven days, due to the miracle of Hanukkah only consisting of the seven extra days that the menorah stayed lit.
Some experts posit 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 presented by Rabbi Yosef Karo in his book Beit Yosef:
- 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 quantity of oil shouldn’t have lasted more than an hour or so, but instead lasted all night, each of the eight nights. Thus, a miracle occurred each and every night.
- On the first night, the Maccabees filled the Menorah with all the pure oil they had found, and lit it. When they returned the next morning, the Menorah was still lit and still full with oil, the quantity of oil not having decreased. 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.
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.” This passage reveals that in 164 BCE, 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.
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.
- Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21a
- "Hanukkah - Holidays - HISTORY.com". HISTORY.com. Retrieved 2016-04-08.
- "The Story of Chanukah". www.chabad.org. Retrieved 2016-04-08.
- "Ascending in Holiness". www.chaburas.org. Retrieved 2016-04-08.
- Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21 b
- Student, Gil. "25 Answers for Chanukah". Torah Musings. Retrieved 2016-04-08.