Which Is the Greater Chanukah Miracle?


101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiAs we prepare for the festival of Chanukah, it behooves us to revisit the significance of the lights of the chanukiah, as well as the Al Hanissim and Hallel praises that mark our eight-day celebration.

Based on the text of the prayer of Al Hanissim (literally, “for the miracles”), which appears in the thanksgiving blessing of the Amidah and the Grace after Meals throughout the festival, it would appear that the essential miracle of Chanukah is the military victory of a ragtag militia of Judeans over a vastly larger fighting force, the army of the Greco-Syrian Kingdom.

However, another source, first found in the late Tannaitic work Megillat Taanit and cited by the Babylonian Talmud, emphasizes an altogether different miracle only hinted at  in the Al Hanissim prayer.  According to this source, which barely even mentions the military victory, the main miracle was a single cruse of oil sufficient for one day lasting for eight days.

Faced with this apparent dispute within our own tradition, which, then, is the primary miracle of the holiday? If both, why did the Almighty have to perform the second miracle of the cruse of oil at all? The military victory would have been sufficient to restore Israeli sovereignty, and the Maccabees could have waited eight days to secure new oil before lighting the menorah! Moreover, it would have been halachically permissible to use ritually defiled oil if no other oil was available.

According to Beit Hillel, the main struggle — and miraculous victory — was the victory over the false ideology of Greco-Pagan Hellenism. The battle of ideas is won with better ideas, in this case, the light of Torah knowledge. Since knowledge is cumulative, developing as text is joined to text, so too, ideas are built upon ideas, and hence, the progression from one light to eight.

We can understand the essence of the miracles that we celebrate by considering the fact the Maccabees were fighting against not one, but two destructive enemies. On the one hand, they were battling the Greco-Syrian military forces that were physically threatening Judean independence. And on the other hand, they were combatting the Greco-Syrian ideology that was spiritually threatening the Torah’s message of commitment to a God of peace.

The Al Hanissim prayer and our Hallel praise emphasize the military victory that brought us independence; the kindling of the menorah (in accordance with Beit Hillel) emphasizes the ideological, spiritual victory of a religiously committed Judea against the pagan-secular Hellenism. Both victories and each miracle were crucial in order for Israel’s legacy not only to survive, but to prevail.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.


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