The Miracle of the Oil Sourcesheet (pdf)
The Miracle of the Oil E-shiur (pdf)

The roots of Hanukkah as a holiday celebrating a historical event are fairly clear.  In the year 166-165 B.C.E., the Hasmoneans (called Maccabees in Greek sources) led a rebellion against the Greeks which culminated in the rededication of the Temple on the 25th of the month of Kislev.  Subsequently, the Hasmoneans and their descendants established an eight day holiday to commemorate this occasion and to instill loyalty in their dynasty.  This extra-biblical holiday came to be known as Hanukkah, which means rededication.

Despite the holiday’s clear origins, both traditional sources and modern scholars alike have grappled with the holiday of Hanukkah, specifically with the two questions that are the sub-title of this shiur: why is Hanukkah connected with fire and why is it eight days?  The name of the holiday itself, Hanukkah, is probably short for Hanukkat Hamizbeah, the Rededication of the Altar. The altar was the main focus of Temple worship; some of the earlier sources that discuss the Hanukkah events focus on the rededication of the altar (see source 5).

So how did a historical event that centered on the rededication of the altar become associated with fire? While there is a fire on the altar, the fire associated with Hanukkah is the fire of the Menorah (or later the Hanukkiah).  Furthermore, why should this holiday be eight days?  While today we are familiar with the story of the miracle of the oil, this story does not appear in any source until the Babylonian Talmud (source 3, right hand column), which was compiled in the fifth century C.E., seven hundred years after the events of Hanukkah took place.  If this event was so well-known, why would it have taken so long to be recorded?  There are many sources from before the composition of the Bavli that discuss Hanukkah.  Why don’t they mention this miracle?

In this shiur I will show how ancient sources grappled with these two questions.  The Hanukkah story with which we are familiar is one of several explanations made in the ancient world as to why Hanukkah is an eight day fire holiday.  We shall see how this tradition developed in rabbinic sources.

This shiur is based on a Hebrew article by Vered Noam which appeared in the Hebrew journal Zion (67, 2004). Noam’s article is a fantastic comparison of the rabbinic and non-rabbinic sources for Hannukah, but since it was written in Hebrew and published in an academic journal, I do not believe that it has been read by a broad, non-academic, English speaking audience. Throughout my career as a teacher of Talmud, one of my goals has been to make Hebrew academic scholarship available to a broader audience. This was my main goal in my first book, The Schechter Haggadah, and it is a major goal in my forthcoming book (jointly authored with Jason Rogoff), Talmudic Voices: An Introduction to the Academic Study of Talmud. It is my hope that this e-shiur will serve as another example of how academic study can enrich our Jewish religious lives.

Rabbinic Sources

While it might seem like there are several independent rabbinic sources that explain why Hanukkah is an eight day holiday associated with fire, there is in essence only one source that exists in several different forms. Two different versions of this source appear in a work called “The Scholion to Megillat Taanit” while the third is a quote of this source in the Babylonian Talmud. Megillat Taanit, the “Scroll of Fasts” is an ancient list of holidays, written in Aramaic, on which it is forbidden to fast or mourn.  Many of these holidays are associated with Jewish military victories over Greeks and Romans during the Second Temple period. Many of the dates have been forgotten and haven’t been observed for thousands of years. However, the most famous of these holidays is still observed. The date records the victory of the Hasmoneans over Antiochus Epiphanes, and it is the basis of the Hanukkah holiday.

The “Scholion” is an attempt by later rabbis to write a commentary to Megillat Taanit.  Traditional Jews sometimes call this text the “commentary to the Megillat Taanit.” We don’t know when the Scholion was written, but probably during the Talmudic period, from 300-600 C.E.  The text of the Scholion has remained somewhat open to insertions, embellishments and changes throughout its history.

There are several different manuscript traditions for this Scholion, each of which is very distinct from the other.  Vered Noam’s masterful work, Megillat Taanit, attempts to sort these traditions out.  The first tradition we will examine is found in source 1.  Section one of this source seems to know that Hanukkah is associated with oil and the menorah (the lamps).  It says that the Jews found “pure oil.”  This is clearly an attempt to explain why Hanukkah is associated with fire.  But the author does not mention any particular miracle that occurred.  There is no mention of finding only enough oil for one day and having it last eight days.  The Jews just found pure oil—good news perhaps, but not quite a miracle.

In section two, the author of the Scholion asks why this rededication is eight days when the earlier Temple dedications were seven days[1].  To answer this question, the author cites another story that explains the connection of fire with Hanukkah.  In this story, when the Hasmoneans take back the Temple, they have to forge a make-shift Menorah (see also source 4a), presumably because the Greeks stole the original gold one.  This story explains the association of Hanukkah with fire, but it does not explain at all why Hanukkah is eight days.  After all, the menorah has only seven branches!

Source 2 is the other basic manuscript of the Scholion, the commentary on Megillat Taanit.   In section 2, this source does contain a mention of the familiar “miracle of the oil.”  However, this seems to be a late addition, one that replaced an earlier version that used to be part of this tradition.  Note the stilted language, “and there was no oil in which to light.”  Vered Noam has shown that the original version of this scholion read, “and there was nothing in which to light the oil.”  This version is still found in the Or Zarua, a medieval talmudic commentary (source 4a).  Thus the original version of this manuscript read as did the other manuscript of the Scholion—Hanukkah is associated with fire because the Hasmoneans came to the Temple and found that the Menorah was missing.  So the Hasmoneans built a new Menorah – great news, but again hardly a divine miracle!

In section four this source explains why Hanukkah is eight days: “they found the altar torn down and they fixed it all eight days, and the holy vessels, and therefore the holiday is observed for eight days.”  I do not know how long it takes to make an altar, but it is clear that the author of this version knows that Hanukkah means “Dedication of the Altar” and that Hanukkah is an eight day holiday.  He adds these two facts together and comes up with the story that it took eight days to build this altar.

The third version of the Scholion is the version quoted in the Bavli, source 3, right hand. In other words, this is a case where the Babylonia Talmud quotes a tradition from a separate text with which it is familiar. This is the version of the story with which we are familiar. The author of this version seems to have embellished upon the source in the left hand column, the earlier version of the Scholion (source 1 and left hand column of source 3), with which he was familiar. The author uses the basic story of finding pure oil but adds some key elements.  First of all, he explains why the holiday is eight days—there was only enough oil for one day but it lasted eight.  Second of all, it was a miracle that caused the association with fire.  Simply finding the pure oil is good news, but doesn’t seem to be sufficient to justify a holiday.  But a divine miracle involving fire—that would explain why Hanukkah is associated with fire, as well as why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days.  Thus one story answers both questions.  Hanukkah is an eight day holiday associated with fire because there was a miracle that occurred for eight days and that miracle involved oil/fire.

For obvious reasons, this story caught on and was transmitted from generation to generation.  It brings God into the Hanukkah story and it answers the main questions concerning Hanukkah in a satisfactory manner.  It is no less believable in a literal sense than any other miracle story.  And so it was, that this became the story told from generation to generation.  And in case you are curious—it is the story I tell my children as well.

Addendum: Greek Sources

There isn’t the space here to examine Greek sources, namely the two Books of Maccabees and Josephus on Hanukkah.  There also isn’t space to speculate as to what the original reason for the holiday was.  Perhaps you’ll have an e-shiur on just that topic next year!  I have, however, included some of these sources for your perusal. There are several things you should note though, in light (pun intended) of this shiur. First of all, none of these sources mentions the familiar “miracle of the oil” the story found only in the Bavli.  Second, these sources already know that Hanukkah is associated with fire and that it is eight days.  Finally, each provides different answers to these questions.  Thus our rabbinic sources, particularly the Scholion to Megillat Taanit, are part of a long-standing search by Jews for the origins of this beloved but mysterious holiday.


[1] Whether Moses’s and Solomon’s dedications were seven or eight days is a point disputed by ancient sources. For our sake it is enough to note that the author of the Scholion thinks that they were seven days.