The Story of Chanuka Oil
The lighting of the menorah candles is one of the most notable parts of the Yom Tov Chanuka. They encapsulate the many miracles Hakadosh Baruch Hu performed for the battered Jewish nation, when it didn’t always seem that the few righteous and loyal soldiers would triumph over the many Hellenistic ones.
The Miracle Oil in the Chanuka Story
We light Chanuka candles in commemoration of a miraculous event that took place several centuries ago. Antiochus, the tyrannical Greek ruler of the time, wanted to eliminate all forms of Jewish religion within his ruling provinces, and created evil decrees. His goal was to have every last one of his subjects abandon Torah true yiddishkeit and embrace the Hellenistic culture. However, Jewish rebels led by Matisyahu Kohen Gadol formed a group of righteous fighters called the Maccabees. They sought to rebel against the evil laws meant to uproot Judaism and keep the Torah life alive.
The Jewish fighters succeeded in driving the Greek soldiers away from the Beis Hamikdash, but were dismayed to find that the holy valuables had been looted, and the Beis Hamikdash terribly desecrated. Devastated at the desecration to Hashem’s home, the Jews set out to clean and rebuild that which had been destroyed, hoping to restore the glory that had once lived in the Beis Hamikdash
The Jews feared that they would not be able to light the menorah, since all of the oil that had been stored in the Beis Hamikdash had been destroyed by bloodthirsty Greek soldiers.
After searching for a sealed vial of oil completely untainted by Greek hands, they finally found one. One vial of oil was just about enough to light the menorah for one day. This is where the miraculous story of the Chanuka candles begins. While single day’s worth of oil was poured into the menorah and lit, it continued to provide sustenance to the menorah’s flames for eight days! Until new and pure oil could be produced and brought to the Beis Hamikdash.
The miracle of the Chanuka candles is a symbol of purification, Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s love for us as a nation, and a moral victory in the face of spiritual oppression.
Why is It Lit for Eight Days?
The celebration of Chanuka is consistent with the miraculous light of the menorah which burned continuously for eight days. There are several reasons for why the menorah remained lit specifically for eight days.
The most commonly known reason is that it took eight days to produce a new batch of oil and bring it to Jerusalem from the Galil. It was important for the Jews to use only the purest olive oil. Hence, it took a while for them to produce the amount of oil needed.
One Rabbinic commentary provides another explanation for the significance of the eight-day festival and lighting of the menorah. The Maccabees fought with the Greek army before coming to the holy (yet desecrated) Bais Hamikdash. Therefore, they needed to light the oil and keep the candles burning for eight days during which they purified themselves for having come into contact with the dead during the battle. The purification process involved sprinkling clean water that was blended with the ashes of a red heifer.
One of the lesser-known theories linked to the story of the Chanuka oil states that the Chashmonaim found eight iron rods at the temple. They made grooves in these iron rods and distributed the small amount of oil they found into these grooves. Those carved grooves provided enough oil to keep the candles burning for eight days.
The Tradition of Lighting the Candles
The miraculous story of the Chanuka oil is the reason we light Chanuka candles for eight days of Chanuka. Each night of Chanuka, sometime after nightfall, we light the menorah. The first night of Chanuka, we light one candle, and each subsequent evening, an additional candle is lit. The menorah has eight arms, one for each night of Chanuka, and an additional arm either in the middle, or off to the side, for the shamash.
Since the miraculous story of Chanuka happened with olive oil, this is the preferred choice for lighting the candles. Many people use cotton wicks to ensure a smooth flame. The eight candles are arranged in a straight and even line. If you are using oil cups, make sure there is enough oil to keep it lit for the required amount of time, which is at least 30 minutes each night, and around one hour and a half during Friday evening, when candles are lit early, before Shabbos begins. If you are using candles to light the Chanuka menorah, make sure they are tall enough to burn for the same amount of time mentioned above.
The shamash is known as the “attendant” candle. It sits apart from the other lights and is used to kindle all other lights in the menorah. Even though the other candles have been lit and the shamash has served its purpose, you don’t normally blow it out: It continues burning along with the other candles.
The head of the household is responsible for lighting the menorah, although the rest of the household members must be present during this tradition. They are part of Chanuka lighting ceremony, and listen to the recitation of the blessings and prayers.
Lighting the Chanuka menorah is a commemoration of how the Maccabees drove away the conquerors, and symbolic of the fact that holy light will drive away the darkness. You must light the menorah at the earliest possible opportunity or when all family members are present.
Why Is The Story of the Chanuka Oil Important?
Armed with this knowledge about the history of Chanuka, we can understand the significant role the Chanuka candles play in the miraculous story of Chanuka.