The Chanukah Miracle
By Rabbis Avraham Rosenthal and Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
Question #1: How did the Seleucid Greeks defile the oils?
Question #2: How was the oil in the flask protected from tumah?
Question #3: How did the Chashmona’im know that it was indeed tahor, ritually pure?
Question #4: Is there a prohibition against lighting the golden menorah with oil that is tamei?
We are all familiar with the story of the flask of olive oil found with the seal of the kohein gadol that was used to light the menorah in the Beis Hamikdash after the defeat of the Seleucid army. There is much discussion in halachic literature concerning this flask of oil. This week’s article will attempt to address the opening questions about that flask.
To begin, let us quote the Gemara’s explanation of the story: “What is Chanukah? (As Rashi explains this question,) on account of which miracle did the Rabbis establish Chanukah? The Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev the days of Chanukah commence. They are eight days, on which it is not permitted to eulogize or to fast. For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all the oil that was in the Sanctuary. And when the royal Chashmona’im house gained the upper hand and vanquished them, they searched [the Beis Hamikdash] and found only one flask of oil that had the kohein gadol’s seal. It contained only enough oil to kindle the menorah for one day. A miracle happened with this oil and they kindled the lights with it for eight days. In the following year, they rendered [these eight days] into a festival with respect to the recital of Hallel and thanksgiving” (Shabbos 21b).
Defiling the Oil
Our first question was: “How did the Seleucid Greeks defile the oils?” Concerning this question, we find several opinions among the Rishonim and Acharonim:
1) One possibility, suggested by Tosafos (ad loc.), is that, miderabbanan, non-Jews are treated as tamei to the extent that they make people and utensils tamei via physical contact or by lifting or moving them (Shabbos 17b; Nidah 31a; Rambam, Hilchos Metamei Mishkav Umoshav 2:10). According to this approach, if the Greeks merely moved the flasks of oil, they became tamei.
2) Another suggestion is that the oil became tamei through tumas meis, the type generated by a corpse. This works as follows: Let us say, for example, that a person enters a room in which there is a corpse. Both he and his clothes are now tamei. If he or his clothes then come in contact with a utensil, the utensil is now tamei. In a situation where there is food or liquid in the container, it becomes tamei because it is in contact with the utensil.
Thus, the garments worn by the Greek soldiers who entered the Beis Hamikdash were, in all likelihood, tamei, as the soldiers had most likely come in contact with their dead Jewish victims. When those garments came in contact with the flasks of oil located in the Sanctuary, the flasks become tamei, which in turn caused the oil to become tamei as well (Re’eim, commentary to Semag, Hilchos Chanukah).
3) Another possibility, suggested by the Rogetchover Gaon (Tzafnas Panei’ach, Hilchos Chanukah 3:1), is based on a passage of Gemara (Chullin 123a) that rules that when a platoon of non-Jewish soldiers enters a house, everything in the house contracts tumas meis. This is because the soldiers were wont to carry skins taken from a corpse in order to use them for witchcraft against the enemy. Based on this, the Greeks soldiers also brought this tumah into the Beis Hamikdash, thereby causing the oil to become tamei.
4) Rav Avraham Halevi Gombiner, author of the famous Magen Avraham commentary on Shulchan Aruch, also wrote commentaries on the midrashim called Zayis Raanan. There he suggests that the oil found in the Beis Hamikdash was not tamei, but the Chashmona’im did not want to use it out of concern that it had been used as part of an idolatrous service (Yalkut Shimoni, Emor, #655, Zayis Raanan, s.v. af betumah).
The Oil was Protected
Our second and third questions were: How was the oil in the flask protected from tumah, and how did the Chashmona’im know that it was indeed tahor, ritually pure?
Again, concerning this issue we find numerous approaches:
1) Rashi, commenting on the Gemara (Shabbos 21b, s.v. bechosmo), writes that they found the sealed flask in a hidden place, where it was unlikely to have been handled by the Greeks.
2) The Ran (Shabbos, ad loc.) writes that the flask was made out of pottery, which has the unique quality that it does not become tamei when someone touches its exterior.
3) Tosafos (Shabbos 21b, s.v. shehayah) write that the flask was situated in the ground in such a fashion that it was evident that the Greeks did not move it. Several Rishonim propose various possibilities as to how it was evident. Some suggest that they found the flask hidden in the area under the mizbei’ach into which flowed the water and wine libations (Yotzros, second Shabbos Chanukah). Others suggest that the flask was in a sealed cubby (Meiri, Shabbos 21b, s.v. neis zeh; see also Kol Bo #44).
4) Some Rishonim write that it is clear that the Greek army was not even aware of the flask’s existence, for had they come across it they would have certainly broken it open to see if there was anything valuable inside (Ran and Meiri, Shabbos ad loc.).
Using Tamei Oil
Now let us address the last of our opening questions: Is there a prohibition against lighting the golden menorah with oil that is tamei?
The basis of this question is that there is a halachic principle, “tumah hutrah betzibbur,” when the only way to offer the required regular public korbanos is by violating the rules of tumah, the Divine service in the Beis Hamikdash is permitted. Only individuals who are tamei are prohibited from bringing offerings and the like. The source of this halachah is based on a pasuk: “Command the Bnei Yisrael and they shall take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for illumination, to kindle a continual lamp (ner tamid)” (Vayikra 24:2). The Sifra elaborates: “‘Tamid’ – even on Shabbos; ‘tamid’ – even in tumah.” The Rambam quotes this ruling (Hilchos Tamidin Umusafin 3:10). If so, the menorah could have been kindled with tamei oil.
Adding to the question as to the necessity of attaining oil that was tahor, the Acharonim point out that the other korbanos at the time were offered even though everyone was tamei (see Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 670:3; Pnei Yehoshua, Shabbos 21b, s.v. mai chanuka).
We find several viewpoints in the Rishonim and Acharonim explaining why they required oil that was tahor.
1) Some Acharonim write that the permissibility of tumah hutrah betzibbur applies only to tumas meis, tumah generated by a corpse. However, this rule does not apply to other types of tumah. Therefore, since, according to some opinions, the oil was tamei for other reasons (see above), it could not be used (Pri Chadash 670).
2) Others contend that the rededication of the Beis Hamikdash by the Chashmona’im created a unique situation. The lighting of the menorah at that time was not merely a fulfillment of the daily mitzvah, but it initiated a new beginning, which required doing so in the purest way possible. This required that they attain oil that was tahor (Gilyonei Hashas [Mahari Engel], Shabbos 23).
A similar idea can be found in the Daas Zekeinim Mi’baalei Tosafos (Vayikra 10:4). Although a kohein gadol is not allowed to become tamei for one of his seven closest relatives, a kohein hedyot (regular kohein) is normally allowed to do so. The Daas Zekeinim points out that Aharon’s two remaining sons, Elazar and Isamar, were not allowed to become tamei upon the deaths of their brothers. This was because they were just then commencing their initiation as kohanim, and therefore they had the same restrictions as a kohein gadol.
3) Some explain that, in actuality, it was permitted to light with tamei oil because of the halachah of tumah hutrah betzibbur. Nevertheless, Hashem performed a miracle on their behalf allowing the one day’s worth of oil to burn for eight days in order to show them His love. This enabled them to light the menorah – the symbol that Hashem’s Divine Presence resides among the Jewish Nation – with oil that was tahor (Pnei Yehoshua, Shabbos 21b; Shu”t Chacham Tzvi #87; Rosh Yosef, Shabbos 21b).
4) According to the view of the Zayis Raanan mentioned earlier, the concern was that the oil had been contaminated by idol worship. The Chasmona’im needed oil that did not have this problem, and the heter of tumah hutrah betzibbur did not apply.
Whereas Shabbos and most of our holidays include Kiddush and other festivities that we celebrate with the use of wine, on Chanukah we celebrate the miracle that happened with the olive oil in the Beis Hamikdash. Many of our customs, including the consumption of donuts and latkes, are to remind us of the miracle of the oil.
It is interesting to note the many comparisons made between olives and grapes, and this also has halachic overtones. Both vineyards and olive groves are called kerem in Tanach and Mishnaic Hebrew (see Berachos 35a). Wine and olive oil are the only fruit products used in korbanos on the mizbeiach. They are also the only liquids whose brocha is not shehakol; it is ha’eitz in the instance of olive oil and hagefen in the instance of wine and grape juice. They both have the halachic distinctiveness of being the only fruits with a Torah requirement of separating terumos and maasros; and they are the only fruits that may be squeezed for their product when they have terumah sanctity.
On the other hand, there is an interesting technical difference between grapes and olives, one with major hashkafic ramifications. Whereas it requires much tending to coax the vine to produce quality wine grapes, the olive tree requires little attention to produce quality olive oil. Once one has chosen the proper site for planting the trees, the main efforts required to produce quality oil are to harvest the olives exactly when they are ready and to crush them immediately without damaging them. Any significant delay reduces severely the quality of the oil extracted. This is also reflected in the halacha, which rules that one may harvest and process olives on Chol Hamoed, when work is usually prohibited, because delaying causes major loss (Mishnah, Moed Katan 11b).
The root of the word Chanukah is the same as that of chinuch; both instances include the concept of training or the beginning of performing mitzvos. Thus, the true translation of chinuch is not education, as it is ordinarily used, but training. Similar to the grape, some children require constant involvement in their education. If you take your eyes off their chinuch for a moment, they will be in trouble. However, when you attend to them carefully and constantly, they’ll produce high quality wine. Other children resemble the olive. They require less oversight. Once they are planted correctly, they only require attentive oversight at key junctions. The rest of the time, they will do far better if left to grow on their own. This is indeed a manifestation of the other aspect of chinuch/Chanukah. As parents and teachers, it is our task to understand our children and apply the correct approach to maximize the potential of each child. As Mishlei (Proverbs) tells us, chanoch lanaar al pi darko (22:6), each child needs to be educated according to his own specific requirements. May the lights of Chanuka symbolize for us the dedication of our ancestors to direct their children and students in the way of Torah, and may they serve as a beacon for us to continue in that mission.