Why were the Greeks so determined to defile all of the oil for the menorah?
By: Aron Ziegler
The Gemara discusses Chanukah: “The sages taught that on the 25th day of Kislev are the eight days of Chanukah… When the Greeks entered the Temple Chamber they defiled all the oil [there]. Once the Chashmonaim overpowered and became victorious over [the Greeks] they checked and found only one jar of oil still sealed with the seal of the Kohen Gadol. There was only enough oil in it to light (the menorah) for one day. A miracle occurred and they lit it from that one jar for eight days….”
The expression used by the Talmud – ‘timu kol hashmanim’ – ‘they defiled all the oil’ tells us that the Greeks didn’t just accidentally or inadvertently cause all of the oils to become defiled and contaminated with ritual uncleanliness, but that the Greeks went about disqualifying the oils by defiling and contaminating them with deliberate intent.
We know that the Greeks issued many anti-Torah decrees against the Jewish people’s observance of Torah Judaism. “They tried to make us forget Your Torah and to remove us from observance of Your laws” (from the Al HaNissim prayer added to bentching and Shemoneh Esrei). Famously, the Greeks especially decreed against Shabbos observance, Circumcision, and Rosh Chodesh (the new month). The Jewish High Court’s sanctification of the new month according to the sighting of the new moon is the basis of the structure for the entire Jewish calendar and thereby the Greeks tried to do away with all of our holy festivals.
But why would they have been so particularly interested in defiling the oil for the menorah such that the Talmud specifies this as a primary feature in the description serving as the answer to the question, ‘What is Chanukah’? In the very same vein – we can also ask on the Chashmonaim (aka the Maccabis, after Yehuda, the family member who had the title ‘Yehuda the Maccabi’) – the Kohen family-dynasty headed by Matisyahu the son of Yochanan the Kohen Gadol. We can ask: why were they so eager and hasty to re-instate the lighting of the menorah?
It is true the Menorah is called ner tamid – a perpetual light, but they only had one day’s supply of pure oil. Why would they have immediately relit the menorah and then have an interruption of seven days without pure oil until they could finally procure a new supply of pure oil? And surely, under such difficult wartime circumstances, it would be permissible to use other oil? It is unlikely to suggest that the Chashmonaim were trusting that a miracle may occur, as we have a principle taught to us in the Talmud that we do not rely on miracles. And if we say that the Chashmonaim were simply reckless and lacked foresight in their haste to rekindle the menorah, why would Hashem manifest an open miracle for naught?
Rabbi Shmuel Tzvi Weiss explains: One of the interpretations of the name “Chanukah” is that it means “inauguration” or “dedication”, and it is called such because the Chashmonaim rededicated the Temple and alter to Hashem in purity and holiness after driving out the Greeks. The word Chanukah is found in the Torah to describe the inaugural sacrifices brought on the altar when the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was dedicated. Each of the princes of the tribes of Israel brought their inaugural dedicating sacrifice on their selected day at the very beginning of the dedication of the Mishkan at Har Sinai. This section of the Torah is actually the selected portion read in shul over the eight days of Chanukah.
The Midrash tells us that after the first twelve days of this inaugural dedication by the twelve princes of the tribes of Israel, including the tribes of Efraim and Menashe (meaning that tribe of Levi had not yet brought any inaugural gift-sacrifice) Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, realised that the tribe of Levi had not been given a day to offer its inaugural dedicating gift sacrifices. He was deeply concerned that perhaps it was because of his personal involvement in the making of the golden calf or some other fault of his that the tribe of Levi hadn’t been given an opportunity to present its inaugural gift for the dedication of the Mishkan. Therefore, Hashem instructed Moshe to tell Aharon: Don’t be afraid – as for an even greater dedicating ceremony are you (and your tribe) destined. That’s why, explains the Midrash, immediately after the parsha of the dedicating of the alter by the other twelve tribes we read, “…speak to Aharon and tell him that when you set up the lights (of the menorah)…” “The sacrifices will only be a valid dedicating ceremony while the Temple is functioning, but the lights (the dedicating ceremony charged to Aharon and the Kohanim – the leaders of the tribe of Levi) will always light up and shine (and will always be a valid dedicating ceremony – even when there will be no Temple).”
The ending of this Midrash is puzzling. Why will the menorah be valid when the Temple is no longer with us? The Menorah was simply a different part of the Temple service! If the Temple service is not in operation neither will the lighting of the menorah in the Temple be performed!? Because of this difficulty, the Ramban explains this Midrash to be referring in an allegorical sense, not to the menorah of the Mishkan or Temple, but rather the Torah here is hinting to the ‘Chanukah’ – re-inaugurating and rededicating of the Temple at the time of the Greeks, when the Chashmonaim – who were Kohanim, ie. descendants of Aharon, would vanquish the Greek empire and rededicate the Temple to sincere, holy service of Hashem and rekindle the lights of the menorah in the Temple. And this would be done almost entirely by them – the Chashmonaim, all Kohanim – descendants of Aharon and members of the tribe of Levi and no other tribe would really feature in this rededication. This is the menorah being referred to in Bamidbar – the Chanukah menorah that the Bnei Yisrael will light even when there is no functioning Temple.
This understanding can also shed light on Aharon’s reaction. When Aharon heard this, he went “and he did so – he set up the lamps … just as has Hashem and instructed Moshe”. Rashi says on this verse that “the fact that the Torah states ‘and Aharon did so’ – tells us the praise of Aharon – that he did not deviate (from the command and instruction – to light the lamps)”. Rabbi Weiss suggests that, in keeping with the flow of our Midrash, it would seem that Aharon was not totally at ease and comfortable with what was being told to him regarding the exploits of his descendants the Chashmonaim in the future time of the Greek exile. Aharon knew that his line had been selected for priesthood – but not for kingship. His descendants the Chashmonaim were going to liberate the Temple from the defilements of the Greeks, but they were also going to usurp the position of rulers over the Bnei Yisrael?
Aharon was, therefore, of the mind to protest about this ‘good news’ that his family of Kohanim and the tribe of Levi were to be granted the total involvement of a later Chanukah, a later dedication of the Temple. But, even so, Aharon restrained himself and despite his disapproval of this aspect of his future descendants’ behaviour – namely that they would not only take over the running of the Temple services (which was their G-d-given right and duty), but also take the status of kings which was the exclusive privilege and duty of the tribe of Yehuda and the house of King David, he nevertheless went ahead and accepted his allocated lot of his special contribution to the Chanukah, the inauguration of the Mishkan, and performed the lighting of the menorah as he was instructed to do.
With this background, let us return to our earlier question: What did the Menorah represent to the Greeks that they were so bent on defiling the oil?
Rabbi Weiss explains that the seven-lamped menorah found in the Temple represented the mitzvahs of Shabbos and of the Holy Festivals. The Temple menorah was a single long candlestick with three branches coming out on the right and left. In symbolising the mitzvah of Shabbos, the central branch represented the day of Shabbos. The three branches on the one side represent the three days before the day of Shabbos, the days that introduce the coming Shabbos and which draw their nourishment from the holiness of that upcoming Shabbos. The three branches on the other side represent the three days following the day of Shabbos that are infused with the residue of the holiness from the past Shabbos. All the lights of the menorah are focused towards the central candlestick, towards Shabbos.
Similarly, in representing the holy festivals, the central candlestick of the menorah represented the Holiest ‘Shabbos-like’ day: Yom Kippur, on which all work is prohibited, just like on Shabbos. And it is flanked on either side by the six not-as-holy other Biblical festival days – the two Yom Tov days of Pesach, the one day of Shavuos, the one day of Rosh Hashanah, first day of Succos, and finally Shemini Atzeres. On these six Yom Tov days some of the ‘works’ relating to food preparations are not prohibited.
The mitzvahs of Shabbos and the Festivals are interconnected – ‘if one observes the festivals – he is considered as if he has also observed the Shabbos, and so too if one desecrates the festivals – he is also considered to have desecrated the Shabbos’. There is probably no other religious symbol that has legitimately represented Judaism to the nations of the world throughout history more so than the menorah. And with our explanation of how the menorah symbolises the mitzvah of Shabbos and the mitzvah of the festivals – we can appreciate why that is so. Therefore, explains Rabbi Weiss, this is why the Greeks were so intent on attacking the menorah and deliberately seeking to defile any of the ritually pure oils used to light it. The Greeks wanted to eradicate all observance and every trace of Shabbos and the festivals.
And, now we can appreciate the thinking of the Chashmonaim and the jar of oil.
Once the Chashmonaim had vanquished their Greek enemies, they saw their first objective in undoing and uprooting any visage of the Greeks’ anti-Torah regime from our Temple and restoring the presence of Torah Judaism to its home – the single most powerful symbol of this being the kindling of the menorah in the Holy Temple once more, akin to raising the flag of Torah Judaism in the Temple or ‘turning the lights back on’ in an abandoned, derelict, and dark gloomy Temple. And, perhaps even most significantly, it was an opportunity to re-establish the observance of Jewish time regarding the Shabbos and festivals that the Greeks had forbade. This would be the ultimate indication and surest manifestation that the victory over the Greeks was complete.
In the search for pure and suitable oil they only found one single jar still sealed with the seal of the Kohen Gadol, which they realised would only enable them to properly rekindle the menorah for a single day. Afterwards, they would have to wait seven days without pure oil – or without the menorah being lit until new oil could be produced or fetched. The Chashmonaim were greatly perturbed by this, sensing that perhaps this was an indication from Hashem that their victory over the Hellenists was not going to last and not going to be a decisive one. Perhaps the Greeks would regather their forces, arise, and re-conquer Yerushalayim, once again threatening Judaism with extinction, and Shabbos and the festivals would once more fade from the Temple and from the Jewish people.
Therefore, the Chashmonaim decided that they had to try a test to see if, indeed, their efforts were only going to realise a short-term reprieve or perhaps Hashem had indeed made their miraculous victory over the Greeks decisive and it would actually be everlasting. The Chashmonaim took this one jar of oil and set up the menorah lights. They said: if this oil lasts until such time that we find or procure more pure kosher oil, then this will be a sign from Above that our victory is Heaven-sent and will be a lasting one. If, however, the oil will not last, then it will be an indication that our victory will not be Divinely everlasting, and we can anticipate the Greek influence to once again prevail over the lights of the menorah and the observance of Shabbos and the festivals and the rest of our Torah ways.
With trembling and pounding hearts, the Kohanim anxiously waited to see how things would play out. The anticipated miracle happened! One day passed; a second day passed… and news of the miracle spread like ‘wildfire’. Multitudes streamed to Yerushalayim to witness the open miracle with their own eyes. The Bnei Yisrael’s faith and conviction was ‘rekindled’ and grew strong in the hearts of the nation and the influences of the Greeks and Hellenists faded and withered away. The Bnei Yisrael again observed the Shabbos and festivals and statutes of Torah. In recognition and remembrance of this miracle, the Chashmonaim established the celebration of these days of Chanukah with days of praise and thanks to Hashem, by reciting Hallel and Al HaNissim.
In relation to the Greeks decreeing against bris milah (circumcision), we can, perhaps, suggest that this could be another of the many answers to why we celebrate eight days of Chanukah (even though the oil was adequate for one day and the miracle could actually be said to be only for seven days and not eight). This question is discussed by many authorities. This could offer an insight as to why we celebrate eight days and why the Chanukah menorah (the Channukiah) is made of eight branches, instead of being modelled after the seven-branched menorah in the Temple, as eight would represent the mitzvah of bris milah that is instructed to be performed on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life. Hashem made the oil last for eight days to further indicate that the covenant of bris milah would also outlast and outshine the ‘enlightenment’ of the Greeks. And so it has been, since those days at this time of the year, that the eight-lamped menorah shines forth specifically on the eighth day of Chanukah when all eight lamps are alight – the day called ‘Zos Chanukah’ – when we read the paragraph beginning “This was the dedication of the alter…”
Rabbi Shmuel Tzvi Weiss (1884-1949), who was originally from the area of Lviv, Ukraine (aka Lemberg), was a major campaigner and spokesperson for the development and resettling of the Land of Israel to which he himself ultimately moved. He passed away the night after he completed the manuscript for his book Peri Levanon, just weeks after the establishment of the State.
Aron Ziegler has learned for over 15 years at the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, including five years full-time. He was among the first students of Hirsch Lyons School. For more than 10 years, he served as the spiritual leader of the Kensington Hebrew Congregation. He regularly leins at the Doornfontein Lions Shul Shabbos Morning Minyan and also leads a learning group weekday mornings at Cyrildene Shul. He strives, in the words of his beloved Rosh Yeshivah’s rebbe, to be a ‘Torah Jew’.
- Shabbos 21b ↑
- This same expression is also used in Ma’oz Tzur, sung after the candle lighting each night ↑
- Megilas Antiyochas – 1:10 ↑
- Maccabbees I 1:3 ↑
- Shemos 27:20 ↑
- It took eight days to produce and ready new fresh oil. (Rambam Hilchos Megillah and Chanukah 3:1) or the nearest pure oil was about a four-day journey distance each way (RaN – Shabbos, pages of the Rif 9b) ↑
- Pesachim 64b ↑
- See Peri Levanon ↑
- See Bamidbar 7 ↑
- Medrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 15:6 ↑
- Bamidbar 8:2 ↑
- Bamidbar 8:3 ↑
- See Chumash HaGra, Vayikra 23:3 ↑
- See Rashi on Vayikra 23:3 ↑
- See, for example, the episode where Gideon tested Hashem to be convinced of Hashem’s promise of success against Midyan (Shoftim/Judges 6:39) ↑
- Most famously by the Beis Yoseph, Tur, Orach Chaim 670 ↑
- Bamidbar 7:84 ↑