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MAQ: Most asked question

RABBI Joseph Caro compiled volume upon volume of Jewish law, but perhaps his most influential statement is a mere 22 Hebrew words, and it is a question. Perhaps the Most Asked Question in Jewish lore.

A question about Chanukah.

After the Assyrian Greeks trashed the ancient holy Temple in Jerusalem, and after the Maccabees recaptured it, they discovered a single flask of ritually pure oil, with the seal of the High Priest — enough to light the Menorah in the Temple for one day only. But it burned for eight days.

Rabbi Caro’s question goes like this:

If Chanukah was established to commemorate a miracle, and if there was enough oil for one day, wasn’t the miracle really a seven-day miracle (days 2 to 8)? The first day shouldn’t count as a miracle, since there was enough oil to burn for one day. Shouldn’t Chanukah be seven days, not eight?

I don’t know why, but this question has fascinated many minds for centuries. There is actually a book entirely dedicated to answers to this question — with 100 answers why Chanukah is eight days, not seven. Another book offers 500 answers!

Maybe the fascination stems from this: The question is the intersection of the historical, the ritual and the legal.

In any event, the answers I present fall into two categories: a) those that identify a miracle concerning the oil on Chanukah’s very first day; b) those that concede the force of the question about the oil, but say that Chanukah was established for eight days for other reasons.

I take these answers from a recently published book, Inside Chanukah, by Aryeh P. Strickoff (Feldheim). The book, parenthetically, deals not only with Rabbi Caro’s MAQ, but with all aspects of Chanukah.

Note that many of these answers presume different historical realities.

RABBI Caro himself offers three answers. Here is his first:

The Maccabees knew that it would take eight days to obtain new oil for the Menorah in the Temple. Therefore, they divided the one day’s oil into eight parts, and lit one part each eight night. Miraculously, each part — only one-eighth of the necessary quantity — burned a full day. Thus, the miracle was eight days long. Thus, the sages established Chanukah for eight days, not seven.

Rabbi Caro’s second answer:

After emptying the entire flask of oil into the Menorah so that it would burn for at least that one whole night, the priests in the Temple discovered that the flask was miraculously still full. This miracle repeated itself on each of the subsequent  seven nights. This miracle occurred the first night as well. Therefore, an eight-day Chanukah.

Rabbi Caro’s third answer is very similar to his second, except that in this scenario, it wasn’t the flask that remained full even after it was emptied into the Menorah; rather, it was the Menorah itself that remained full, even after it burned for one whole night (and each subsequent night). Thus, the first night was also a miracle. Thus, an eight-day Chanukah.

Chiddushei HaRim’s answer:

This is a variation on Rabbi Caro’s first answer, about the oil subdivided in advance into eight small portions. Chiddushei HaRim says that the Maccabees used very thin wicks to allow the oil to last for eight days.The miracle was that the flames, instead of being very small, commensurate to the wicks, burned as brightly as they would with normal-sized wicks. Again, a miracle on all eight nights.

The Chatam Sofer’s answer:

On the first day the Maccabbees recaptured the Temple, it was full of idols. Therefore, the Menorah was lit on the first night outside the Temple, in the courtyard. There, in the Jerusalem winter, the wind blows. There, the oil was used up at a much quicker pace than when the Menorah was lit inside. In the wind, the flame automatically pulls more oil into the wick to maintain itself. That the oil, on the first night, burned the whole night long was a separate miracle, added to the miracle of the oil lasting another seven days. That is: Eight days of miracles; eight days of Chanukah.

Ner le-Me’ah’s answer:

The pure oil was stored in earthenware flasks. These are porous. If oil is stored therein for a long time, some of the oil is absorbed into the walls of the flask. The oil from the single flask should not have burned even for one whole night. But it did. This was a miracle. Thus, the miracle with the oil was an eight-day miracle.

Shabbos Shel Mi’s variation on this answer: The flask of oil that was found was prepared by the High Priest. Now, the particular use of such a flask required three lugim (a Talmudic, liquid measure). However, the Menorah required 3.5 lugim. Thus, the flask that was found did not contain enough oil to burn for a single night. Yet, it did. Again, a miracle on the first night, too, with the oil.

Another variation on this answer, by Atzei Zayit: The first day of the very first Chanukah was a Shabbos. Hence, the Menorah needed to be lit before sunset — the flask of oil had to burn a little longer than one full night. And it did. Hence, a separate miracle with the oil on the first night, not just the next seven.

HERE are some answers separate from how long the oil lasted.

Pri Chadash’s answer:

The miracle celebrated on the first night of Chanukah was the miracle of the battle victory of the few Jewish soldiers vanquishing the mighty armies of the Assyrian Greeks. This approach concedes that the miracle with the oil was a seven-day miracle only. The sages marked both types of miracle — victory and oil — together to make an eight-day holiday.

HaEshkol’s answer:

The miracle celebrated on the first night of Chanukah had nothing to do with how long the oil lasted, or with the battle victory. Rather, it was the fact that pure oil was found at all. For years, the Assyrian Greeks had thoroughly trashed the Temple, with one of their goals being the defilement of all oil therein.The fact that one undefiled flask was found, and found immediately upon the Maccabees’ entry into the Temple, was itself a miracle. Again, the miracle with the oil was only seven-days long, but the totality of the miracles was eight days.

Aruch HaShulchan’s answer:

Again, the miracle with the oil was only seven-days long. However, since the Assyrian Greeks banned circumcision (frightening echoes of today in Europe today, no?), the sages established Chanukah for eight days to commemorate the Maccabees’ restoration of the mitzvah of circumcision, which takes place on the eighth day of life.

Another answer by Aruch HaShulchan, along the same theme:

The Assyrian Greeks outlawed Sukkos, eight days long. The sages established Chanukah as an eight-day holiday in appreciation for the restoration of the eight-day holiday of Sukkos.

By the way, Inside Chanukah, which provides these answers, also provides challenges to these answers. Then it answers these challenges to the best of its ability.

Happy Chaunkah — for eight days!

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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