Other kids ask “Why?” at two. I still do.
– The Magnetic Fields<1>
Have you ever wondered what rabbis do for fun? One of the answers is: Learn fun parts of Torah. This is especially true for the minor Jewish holidays. So every year on Purim, many rabbis revisit the question of “Why should there be a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim, when getting drunk is so problematic?” And every year on Chanukah, many rabbis revisit the question of “Why is Chanukah eight days, anyway?”
This question is associated with the Beit Yosef (Rav Yosef Karo, better known for writing the Shulchan Arukh). It’s based on the Gemara, which is the written source for the miracle of the oil: “The Chashmonaim … found only one container of oil, which was marked with the seal of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). There was only enough in it to light [the Menorah] for one day. A miracle happened! They used it to light for eight days.”<2> Based on this Gemara, the Beit Yosef asks: “Why did they establish Chanukah as eight days? After all, the oil in the container was enough to light for one night [without any miracle]. This means that the miracle was only for seven nights!”<3>
So many rabbis have tackled this question that someone in Brooklyn put together a book collecting many of the answers.<4> How many, exactly? I already told you in the title above: one hundred! Some of the answers there are pretty farfetched (an honorary Yiddish word). But I’m impressed with the effort. And yes, rabbis keep coming up with new answers.
In any case, it doesn’t matter how many answers people have given to “the Beit Yosef’s question.” I’ve noticed that they all fall into two categories: the ones that fall into one of two categories, and the ones that don’t. In other words, they all fall into three categories. The categories are:
A. The oil miracle actually was eight days, in some way.
B. The oil miracle was seven days, but we celebrate one more day of Chanukah for some other reason.
C. The oil miracle was seven days, but Chanukah is eight days for a completely different reason.
For your enjoyment and edification, I will now summarize some of the answers. Just to make it interesting, I’ll present one from each category for each of the eight days of Chanukah. If you’d like, you can come back to this article and read three on each day. Here we go!
A. The Chashmonaim divided the oil into eight parts. Each night, they poured in one eighth, and it burned for an entire day.<5>
B. One day was for winning the battle.<6> This fits with Al HaNissim‘s emphasis on the miraculous victory.
C. The chanukah (dedication) of the altar took eight days.<7>
A. Each night, they poured in all the oil, and the container miraculously refilled itself.<8>
B. One day was for gaining control of the Beit HaMikdash.<9>
C. During Sukkot, the Chashmonaim had been hiding in caves and fighting the war, so they couldn’t celebrate the eight days of Sukkot/Shmini Atzeret. To make up for it, they made an eight-day holiday – and said Hallel carrying a lulav! <10>
A. Each night, they poured in all the oil, and each morning the Menorah was still full of oil.<11>
B. One day was for being able to rededicate the Beit HaMikdash.<12>
C. It was a four-day trip to get to the nearest supply of pure oil, and another four days to come back. So it took eight days before they had a new supply of oil.<13>
A. There was a miracle of oil on the first night. The oil burned all night but wasn’t all burned up, so that the miracle of the next seven nights had something to work with.<14>
B. One day was for finding the container in the first place.<15>
C. When Adam realized that the growing shortness of the days didn’t mean the world was being destroyed, he made an eight-day holiday. When the Romans later made a mid-winter holiday, they took it as a precedent.<16> Presumably the Jews did too when they made the mid-winter holiday of Chanukah.
A. Normally, the Menorah was inside. But the inside had been made impure, so the Chashmonaim lit it outside in the courtyard (as mentioned in Al HaNissim). Because of the wind, the oil wouldn’t have lasted even one day without a miracle.<17>
B. One day was for finding the Kohen Gadol’s seal on the container. Nobody had ever seen an oil container with such a seal before. It was clearly a sign from God.<18>
C. The Mishkan (Tabernacle) had been finished in the month of Kislev but its eight-day dedication didn’t take place until until Nissan. To make it up to Kislev, God arranged for an eight-day dedication of the Beit HaMikdash to take place in Kislev.<19>
A. They made wicks that were only one-eighth the usual thickness, and yet the oil burned as bright as usual.<20>
B. One day was for the Kohen Gadol having hidden a sealed container of oil. He must have had faith that the Jews would ultimately return to the Beit HaMikdash. The lesson is that miracles can and should be planned.<21>
C. Antiochus had banned brit milah, which takes place when a baby is eight days old. To remember this, Chanukah is eight days long.<22>
A. The container had enough oil for only one of the Menorah’s cups on one day, but it filled all seven cups that day (and the later days as well).<23>
B. One day was for the Chashmonaim having searched for the pure oil. All the odds were against it, but they trusted that they would find it. The lesson is that to find miracles, you need the faith to look for them.<24>
C. Chana and her seven sons were martyred by Antiochus for following the Torah. In the memory of the eight of them, Chanukah is eight days long.<25>
A. The oil became stronger (or increased in quality), so it burned eight times slower than usual.<26>
B. One day was for the miracle of the survival of the Jewish people. Like the container of oil, it looks like it will never survive. Against all odds, it goes on and on – because it’s pure.<27>
C. Chanukah should have been seven days. But then we would be lighting seven-branched menorahs, violating the prohibition of making a replica of the seven-branched Menorah (Rosh Hashanah 24a). To avoid that, Chanukah is eight days.<28>
We have now seen 24 answers to what has been called “the most famous (Torah) question of all time.”<29> Maybe you can come up with an answer of your own. Happy Chanukah!
1. The Magnetic Fields, “’67: Come Back as a Cockroach,” 50 Song Memoir (2017 album). Stephin Merritt composed this album for his fiftieth birthday, with each song corresponding to one year of his life so far. It’s an impressive project, though I prefer his earlier album 69 Love Songs.
2. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b.
3. Rav Yosef Karo (1488-1565), Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 670:1. It’s not that well-known, but the question as well as the three answers he offers are mostly paraphrased from the Rosh (Rabbenu Asher, 1250-1327), Tosfot HaRosh on Shabbat 21b.
4. Rav Rachmiel Zelcer, Ner L’Meah (Brooklyn, 1975).
5. Beit Yosef (first answer) and Tosfot HaRosh (first answer), op. cit.
6. Rav Menachem HaMeiri (1249-1315), Beit HaBechirah on Shabbat 21b, s.v. venachzor; Rav Chizkiah da Silva (1659-1698), Pri Chadash, Orach Chaim 671, first paragraph; Rav Avraham Danzig (1748-1820), Chayei Adam 154:2.
7. 1 Maccabees 4:56; Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Edels, 1555-1631), Chiddushei Aggadot on Shabbat 31b; Rav Yechiel Mikhel Epstein (1829-1908), Arukh HaShulchan, Orach Chaim 670:5.
8. Beit Yosef (second answer) and Tosfot HaRosh (third answer), op. cit.
9. I’m not sure if anyone writes this explicitly. But it can fit with the Rambam’s emphasis that the Chashmonaim appointed a king “and the kingdom of Israel was restored, for more than two hundred years” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah VeChanukah 3:1).
10. 2 Maccabees 10:6-7; Arukh HaShulchan, op. cit. (There are other thematic connections as well between Sukkot and Chanukah.)
11. Beit Yosef (third answer), op. cit. (In contrast, Tosfot HaRosh‘s second answer is that the Menorah miraculously burned only one eighth of that night’s oil.)
12. Rav Yehoshua Boaz (d. 1555), Shiltei HaGiborim on the Mordechai’s commentary, Shabbat, Chapter 2, #3 (p. 79a).
13. The Ran (Rabbeinu Nissim, 1290-1375), Ran on the Rif’s commentary, Shabbat, Chapter 2, s.v. asa’um (p. 9b).
14. Rav David HaLevi Segal (1586-1667), Taz (Turei Zahav), Orach Chaim 670:1.
15. Rav Menachem HaMeiri, op. cit.
16. Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 8a.
17. Rabbi Moshe Sofer (The Chatam Sofer, 1762-1839), Drashot Chatam Sofer, Vol. 1, p. 66a (Chanukah 5592). hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=21252&pgnum=174
18. Rav Zvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dinov (1783-1841), Bnei Yissas’char, Ma’amarei Chodesh Kislev-Tevet 4:15.
19. Pesikta Rabbati #6; Maharsha, op. cit.
20. Rav Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz (The Hafla’ah, 1731-1805), Panim Yafot, Shemot 27:21.
21. Rav Aryeh Frimer, “8 vs. 7 Days of Chanukah,” Mail.Jewish Mailing List, Volume 5, Number 68. https://web.archive.org/web/19991011234250/http://shamash.org/listarchives/mail-jewish/volume5/v5n68 (While he gives credit to the Bnei Yissas’char, the message seems to be the exact opposite of the Bnei Yissas’char‘s answer above.)
22. Rav Yehudah of Barcelona (The Sefer HaItim, 11th-12th centuries), attributed by Shiltei HaGiborim, op. cit.
23. Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter (The Chiddushei HaRim, 1799-1866), attributed by Yalkut Yehudah on Chanukah, s.v. yom echad.
24. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), attributed by Rav Frimer, op. cit.
25. Dr. Irit Rasooly Goldman, when she was in ninth grade at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy (Greater Washington), December 10, 1999. For more information on the eight martyrs, see Sharona Margolin Halickman, “Did Chana and Her Seven Sons Exist?” The Times of Israel, December 10, 2015. http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/did-chana-and-her-seven-sons-exist/
26. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918), attributed by Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, HaMoadim BaHalakhah, p. 189. The English edition is The Festivals in Halachah, Volume 2, p. 57.
27. Rav Mendel Weinbach (1933-2012), attributed by Rav Yaakov Asher Sinclair, “Just a Little Miracle,” Seasons of the Moon (Ohr Somayach), Kislev 5756. https://ohr.edu/seasons/5756/kislev.htm
28. Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (1810-1883), She’elot uTeshuvot Shoel uMeshiv, Mahadura Kamma, Vol. 3, #71, end of s.v. vehinei; Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935), Mitzvat Re’iyah 670:1 (p. 84) and Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah, pp. 478-479.
29. Torah Outreach Resource Center of Houston (TORCH), “The Most Famous (Torah) Question of All Time,” Parshas Mikeitz (5771). http://www.torchweb.org/torah_detail.php?id=134