What was the Real Miracle of Hanukkah?

Everyone knows the basic reason that Hanukkah is an eight day holiday. The story goes that after the Syrian Greeks trashed the Holy Temple and put up idols in its halls, the zealous Maccabees entered the complex after beating back the Greeks and found only one jug of oil still sealed and certified by the high priest. That could only mean one thing. Whoever broke all the seals on the other jugs knew very that the Jews could not use any opened jug for lighting the Menorah. Whoever did it must have either been Jewish himself, or else had the help and complicity of Jews looking to destroy their own religious tradition.

Hanukkah GiftsAs legend has it, the unopened jug was only enough to last one day, and instead the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Yet, there are so many questions that result from this explanation. Here is one: It is forbidden to rely on miracles. The Maccabees should not have lit the Menorah knowing it would go out the next day, expecting God to fill in the other seven while they were busy making more olive oil for the next week. (It took an average of 8 days to produce the olive oil needed for the Temple.) Instead, they should have waited until they had enough oil so that the Menorah wouldn't go out again.

The answer to this question is given by the Rabbis of the medieval period, known as the Rishonim. Some of them claim that the Maccabees indeed did not rely on any miracle. In fact, to save oil they split the wicks in eight as well, in order that the oil be soaked up eight times slower, the light eight times dimmer, but allowing enough time to make the oil required to keep the Menorah continuously lit.

This introduces another question. If they split the wicks in eight, what, then, was the miracle?

Hanukkah MenorahThe answer to that question comes from Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who lived in Poland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Rav Chaim, the miracle was not in the quantity of days. It was in the quality of light. Meaning, the miracle was not that it lasted 8 days. It was rather that it burned brightly enough that it should have lasted only one.

Miraculously, the amount of oil put in each day burned brightly enough that it should have lasted only 3 hours, one eighth of the day. It lasted the whole day, not to mention a wick that small is not supposed to enable a flame that bright. This happened 8 times.

The Maccabees were not relying on a miracle. It just kept happening over and over again anyway.

This miracle is possibly the most obscure and least impressive of any miracle in Jewish history. Who would possibly notice that a candle is burning more brightly than normal? Yet, it is one of the most beautiful.

The Maccabees did not have to light the Menorah at all. They could have waited, because they had no other choice. But instead, they decided to go out of their way to light it immediately. This showed God that the Jewish slide into Greek culture which led to the practical civil war between the Jewish sides (Hellenists vs. Religious Traditionalists), had effectively stopped. Making it a priority to light the Menorah immediately showed their true values, and their move was sanctioned by God, ever so subtly, by the fierce burning of the flames of the Menorah.

To celebrate this miracle with your family, you'll need a Menorah of your own, itself a beautiful household gift any time of year, and a symbol of the Jewish people for millennia. You can look at this Hanukkah Gifts Collection for some ideas. These are handmade Israeli pieces of art, sure to light up your home with brightness and hope for years to come.