Thursday, December 21, 2006

Where did the miracle of the oil come from?

A guest post by ExtraTorah

Dovbear brought up the old chestnut about the miracle of the oil recently, with a few more interesting sources (especially the Pesikta Rabati). I just arrived back at yeshiva in Israel after 10 or so years, and we just had a day of "lectures" about chanukah. Something they said gave me an idea as to why the miracle of the oil is important ... but only 100-400 years later.

One of the Rabbis mentioned that at the time, the six day war seemed an absolute miracle, but in later years was viewed as a logical military consequence. This was similar to the Channukah story, as some Hasmoneans went on to become very expensive mercenaries (admired for their success on the field of battle, rather than for their reliance on miracles!!).

OK .. to the point .. for many years some charedi groups (especially in Israel) treated Yom Yerushalayim as a special day. Various groups wore streimels, had pilgrimages to the Kottel and their own special customs for the day when Hashem miraculously redelivered the Kottel to us . Slowly, as the gloss of this "miracle" wore off, and the political realities heated up, it was treated as yet another uninteresting event in Israel's political history beaten up by the "secular" religious fanatics in the rest of Israeli society. Three years ago a friend of mine on a supposedly "Open Minded" kiruv Yeshiva program in Jerusalem, was told by one of his Rabbis that going out on Yom Yerushalayim night was Assur and a big Aveirah.

I feel that this same problem was at one stage affecting Hanukkah. Certain groups who (perhaps for good reason) disliked the Hasmoneans, and were downplaying the miracle of Chanukah, not because they did not believe in Hashem, but rather like some modern chareidim, could not relate how Hashem can have anything to do with certain Jewish groups, so any military victories were merely a coincidence. (It is interesting how politics can make atheists and chareidim have the same viewpoints in trying to deny Hashem’s direct influence in certain parts of history - this shows how politics is NOT good for faith).

As a result, an "Obvious" supernatural miracle was needed for Chanukah, not for the sceptics and atheists, for they could not believe that a bunch of Jewish peasants could overrun highly trained armies, so why would they believe a tale about a jar of oil. Rather this was for certain religious purists who could not equate the actions of the Macabees with their personal views on religion. The miracle of the oil is the "undeniable fact" implying that the battles for Chanukah were in fact holy and for hashem.

This leaves one more problem ... surely the Rabbis did not just "make up" the story about the oil just to propagate the festival .... so here is my take on this ...

At the time, the miracles of the battles were obvious. These people who lit the oil in the menorah, or the Chanukiah made out of spears (how ever the story is read) saw the "slow" burning of the oil as yet another miracle, not especially significant compared to some of the amazing weight of numbers they had overcome. As such this aspect of the miracle was only made a more public aspect of the tradition later, to maintain the importance of the holiday, when the initially obvious miracles of the military victory lost their impact over the passing years, and fading memories.

Now all we need to do is review the tape of the six day war looking for "a jar of oil".

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