When the holy temples stood, a Cohen would daily, at sundown, light the Menorah as part of the temple service, the flames burning throughout the night until the next morning. Only the very first pressed drop of oil from each olive was used, and, its touching by a gentile would render it unfit for use in the menorah. Under the Greek domination of Israel during the middle of the Second Temple period, the temple, its utensils, and all of the available oil was defiled. When the Maccabees retook the holy temple circa 164 BCE, they wanted to restore the service of lighting the Menorah, but they could find no pure oil to light, and it would take a full 8 days to produce new pure oil. Miraculously, they found a single still sealed bottle with enough oil for a single night. They filled the cups of the Menorah with the oil, inserted the wicks, and lit the Menorah. Surprisingly, miraculously, the flames burned for the full 8 days needed to produce new kosher oil.
The Sages found this miracle so important that they established the Chanukah holiday to commemorate it. For eight consecutive days beginning on the 25th day of the month Kislev, it is a mitzvah to light a menorah to commemorate the eight days the menorah miraculously stayed lit. Although it’s a swell miracle, why the holiday? Shouldn’t a Jewish holiday reflect something of national importance, something that affected the survival and identity of the nation?
In the על הניסים(Al hanissim) prayer that is added to the Amidah and to the Birkat Hamazon, we say:
עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמוֹת שֶׁעָשִֹיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה:
For the miracles and the salvations and the mighty deeds and the victories and the battles
that you have done for our forefathers in those days and in these times.
From the words “in these times” we see that the miracle of the menorah lights does indeed have a relevance to these times. How is that so?
The Midrash on the second verse in the Torah describes the four exiles that the Jewish people will experience:
מדרש רבה בראשית – פרשה ב פסקה ד
(ד) ר”ש בן לקיש פתר קריא בגליות והארץ היתה תהו זה גלות בבל שנאמר (ירמיה ד) ראיתי את הארץ והנה תהו ובהו זה גלות מדי (אסתר ו) ויבהילו להביא את המן וחושך זה גלות יון שהחשיכה עיניהם של ישראל בגזירותיהן שהיתה אומרת להם כתבו על קרן השור שאין לכם חלק באלהי ישראל על פני תהום זה גלות ממלכת הרשעה שאין להם חקר כמו התהום
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explained the verse as referring to the upcoming exiles: תהו refers to Bavel, ובהו refers to Persia and the Meads, וחשך – and darkness – refers to the Greeks who darkened the eyes of the Jewish people with their decrees. They made us write on the horn of an ox, “We have no part of the G-d of Israel.”
The world ironically crowns the Greeks as the beginning of the enlightenment, their having brought us philosophy, math, the scientific method, the arts, and culture. All academia today is based on the foundations of the Greeks and the Roman empire that followed. How is it, then, that the Sages refer to them as “darkness?”
King Solomon said in Proverbs: (3:19)
ספר משלי פרק ג
(יט) יְדוָד בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד אָרֶץ
19) Hashem has founded the world on wisdom.
This wisdom is obvious in every aspect of the creation. The entire set of seemingly natural systems that control our world are subject to scientific laws that govern them and dictate how they work. The study of the sciences, such as physics, biology, medicine, and mathematics, attempts to organize and quantify the laws of nature so they can be understood and manipulated. The scientific method, a system of principles and procedures designed to ascertain accurate data as to the world around us, is used for this task. We are the beneficiaries of centuries of this great work, as we enjoy so many conveniences of scientific discovery. Thanks to the study of aerodynamics we can travel to the other side of the world in a few hours. Thanks to nanotechnology we tote cell phones with more computing power than early computers that took up entire rooms of buildings. So many once deadly maladies no longer exist thanks to medical research.
All of this scientific progress began with the Greeks and their analysis of nature. The Greeks similarly advanced art and culture. This represented a great step forward for the common man who, until then, worshipped idols and was uneducated.
This, along with his military prowess, is what made Alexander the Great so great. Instead of just ruling the many nations that he conquered, Alexander sought to emancipate them with Greek education and culture. Rather than trying to uproot the religion of the people in those countries, he permitted them to keep their idols and pagan ways. All that he asked was that they also adopt the Greek lifestyle. It didn’t take long for the people to see the enlightenment in the Greek way of life and to abandon their pagan ways.
In one small country, however, the people were uninterested in the Greek way of life. They had their own system of wisdom, which they claimed was superior to the Greek’s. This was the wisdom of the Torah, wisdom that comes straight from the Creator. The Torah contains all wisdom, and the Jewish lifestyle is a holy lifestyle based on its teachings. The Jewish people did not need “education” for they had been studying the deepest educational texts for thousands of years.
The Greeks had a problem with this idea. “Holiness,” did you say? What is that? Where can you see holiness? How do you measure it? How much does it weigh? If it is not subject to the scientific method, it has no reality. This was the argument that the Sages had with the Greeks.
Nachmanides writes: (Vayikra 16:8)
רמב”ן על ויקרא פרק טז פסוק ח
ולא אוכל לפרש כי היינו צריכים לחסום פי המתחכמים בטבע הנמשכים אחרי היוני אשר הכחיש כל דבר זולתי המורגש לו, והגיס דעתו לחשוב הוא ותלמידיו הרשעים, כי כל ענין שלא השיג אליו הוא בסברתו איננו אמת:
For I (Nachmanides) needed to squelch those who know much about nature and follow the path of Aristotle who denied the existence of anything that he could not sense and who was so haughty as to think, he and his evil students, that anything that he could not comprehend with his mind was untrue.
To this end, the Greeks imposed laws designed to uproot the concept of holiness from the Jewish people. This is why they targeted only four of the commandments: Shabbat, Torah study, Brit Milah, and Rosh Chodesh.
The Torah declares that Shabbat is a holy day. Shabbat transforms every Jew, no matter what his vocation during the week, into a holy person. He lives his entire week for the day when he can elevate himself above the mundane and spend time with his Creator. Because gentiles cannot experience Shabbat’s holiness, they tried to prove that It is a day like any other.
The Torah is holy, and the study of the Torah, Hashem’s holy words, makes a person holy. A Torah Sage is a holy person.
The Talmud (Megillah 8a) tells us that King Ptolemy II took 72 Sages, and without telling them why, put them into 72 different rooms. Then he entered each room, telling each Sage to translate the Torah into Greek. Hashem put the same ideas into their minds, and all the Sages translated the Torah exactly the same. The Greeks were not interested in learning our holy Torah. Rather, they wanted access to it so they could show it wasn’t holy The Sages say that the day that the Torah was translated into Greek was as bad as the day on which the first Tablets were broken.
Brit Milah is a sign on the body of a Jewish man signifying his special holy connection to his Creator, instilling holiness into the body of a Jewish male, enabling him to control his earthy desires and live a holy life. The Greeks denied this, too.
Finally, they outlawed Rosh Chodesh. Setting the beginning of the new month following the pronouncement of the high court, Rosh Chodesh fixed the schedule for the holidays, which start on specific days of the month. Pesach with its inherent holiness, for example, begins on the 15th of Nissan. To determine that, we need to know when the first of Nissan occurred, which the Sages determine. This takes the concept a step further, for the holiness of the day is determined by the court.
This is exactly what we say in the blessing we say in the prayers on the festivals.
מחזור ספרד לחג הסוכות – תפילה לשליח ציבור בקול:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְדֹוָד, מְקַדֵּשׁ יִשְֹרָאֵל וְהַזְמַנִּים:
Blessed are you Hashem, who sanctifies the Jewish people, who sanctify the times
The Greeks denied the existence of anything that could not be observed, sensed with one of the five senses, measured, or experimented with.
The Torah teaches us the exact opposite. Not only is Hashem and holiness a true reality, but the world that we see, nature and all of its laws (what the world calls “reality”), is really not real. It has no existence independent of Hashem. They are only a “reality” because each and every second of each and every day, Hashem wishes them to exist. And, if for a moment, Hashem would not wish them to exist, all reality would immediately collapse.
The following Midrash illustrates this point.
מדרש רבה בראשית – פרשה י פסקה ו
א”ר סימון אין לך כל עשב ועשב שאין לו מזל ברקיע שמכה אותו ואומר לו גדול
Rabbi Simon said: Every blade of grass has a force in heaven that strikes it to make it grow.
Everything in this world, even a blade of grass, must have a spiritual force behind it. Nothing can exist without Hashem wishing it so.
We know this from atomic theory. If we were to don a pair of tunneling electron microscopes and look at the table in front of us, all that we would see is vast open space. The atomic tininess is vastly empty. Were we to increase the size of the atomic nucleus to the size of a tennis ball, the very first electron would be four miles away. Removing all of an atom’s “empty” space would allow all of the earth’s protons, neutrons, and electrons, to fit into something the size of a basketball. We are really not seeing a complete reality. How did the electrons start their obits around the atomic nucleus in the first place? What keeps them in their obits? Why don’t they slow down or stop?
The atom’s center contains the positively charged protons and the neutrally charged neutrons. Negatively charged electrons orbit the nucleus, but we know that opposite charges attract. So why don’t the protons draw the electrons into the center of the atom? The answer is, that the electrons are flying around in circles, and that creates a force which makes the electron fly out. Why doesn’t the electron just fly out of its orbit then? The pull of the protons is keeping it there. The electron is orbiting the nucleus at the perfect speed to neutralize the pull of the protons, but not so fast as to fly out. What keeps the electron orbiting at this perfect speed?
One last question. We know that like forces repel each other and opposite forces attract. Think of two magnets. All the protons in the nucleus are positively charged. Why don’t they repel each other and fly out of the nucleus?
סדור תפלה נוסח אשכנז – סדר יוצר:
הַמְחַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵֹה בְרֵאשִׁית.
In His goodness, Hashem daily renews creation.
The entire world could fall apart, literally, in a moment, if Hashem wasn’t keeping it together. Even though these are commonly known facts, the general public thinks the world is a very secure and enduring thing.
We experience this phenomenon in our lives with all our electric appliances. We know that for the pixels on our screen to light up, electricity must flow to it from an electrical source, either the outlet or the battery. When the plug is pulled, or the battery dies, and there is no electricity to power the pixels, and they go dead. This is true for the millions of electronic devices worldwide.
Similarly, Hashem is the universe’s “juice.” Without Him powering the atoms, all would go dead.
Before electricity, a burning candle was the metaphor for something that needed constant fuel. When we see a candle burning, it looks so solid, as if it will last forever. We know, though, that the moment that the fuel runs out, so does the flame. The flame that we observe now, is from the oil drawn up the wick a second ago. When there is no more oil, the flame must go out.
The Greek world does not brook the possibility of a miracle. A wick of a certain thickness, placed in oil, will burn one half ounce per hour. This is science, confirmed by experimental evidence. It does not change.
Yet the Torah teaches us that nature is in Hashem’s hands. Yes, for the most part, it functions smoothly and you can count on it to work as usual. But when Hashem wants to change it, He can. All of nature is just Hashem’s most constant miracle.
Many of the Jews in the time of the Second Temple were attracted to the Greek philosophy and approach to science. It looks so solid. You can prove its truth by experiments. Man can fly to the moon. You can cure illnesses. How could anybody argue with science? The reasoning is powerful, and it caused a lot of Jews to abandon the Torah perspective on life and become Greeks. The Jewish religion was in severe danger. Only a handful of Jews remained loyal to the Torah and its teachings. Among them were Matityahu and his 12 sons, who were prepared to sacrifice everything to save Judaism.
The miracle of the oil of the menorah was proof positive to the Torah approach. Hashem showed clearly that oil burns because Hashem has said that it should burn. And it can burn as long as Hashem decides that it should. The miracle of the oil restored the reality of the Torah, that Hashem controls nature, that and nature inherently constitutes a miracle.
One Friday evening Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa saw his daughter looking upset. He asked her, “Why are you upset?” She answered, “By mistake, I put vinegar in the Shabbat candles instead of oil.” (There was a little oil left, but it would soon go out.) Rabbi Chanina told her, “Don’t be concerned. Whoever told oil to light, will tell vinegar to light!” The “vinegar” candles lit the entire Shabbat, and they provided a flame for Havdalah also.
Our Sages explain that when Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa saw oil burn, he did not see “nature.” He saw a miracle from Hashem! So, vinegar could also burn.
This is why the Sages labelled the Greeks “darkness.” They turned a blind eye to anything they could not see or perceive with their eyes. It is like watching a movie without believing in Hollywood. He thinks that everything he sees on the screen is reality.
This is why the miracle of the Menorah is so important to us. And, when we light our menorahs, we are also saying that we understand that the world works like a candle. Hashem must make it happen every second of every day. This is one of the important lessons of Chanukah.