Rabbi Debra Eisenman is an instructor in the Melton School of the Palm Beaches in South Florida.
We all know the famous story from the Babylonian Talmud (Masekhet Shabbat 21b) that after the Hasmonean dynasty defeated the Greeks, they entered the Temple and they found one cruse of oil still bearing the seal of the Kohen Gadol (high priest). Miraculously the little cruse of oil lasted eight days! In celebration of this long lasting oil, the Hasmoneans established the eight day holiday of Hanukkah. While olive oil was abundant in Israel as early as 4500 BCE, olive oil with the Kohen Gadol’s special seal was hard to find!
Why is everyday olive oil so sacred to begin with? One Rabbinic answer (Masekhet Menachot 53b) is (loosely translated): “Rabbi Yohanan taught, ‘Just as olives are special because they do not yield their oil until they are pounded, so too is Israel special because they return to the right (home) only after much suffering!’” After years of war and with true faith, perhaps the Hasmoneans’ very act of breaking the seal and using this sacred oil was the miracle that lasted eight days and beyond.
The famed Professor Theodor Gaster explains that pagans used oil to light wicks during winter solstice to celebrate the “physical regeneration of the sun and this is now transmuted, (by the Jewish People,} into a symbol of revival (and strength) on a spiritual plane.” This is all made possible by a little cruse of oil!
- Why do you think oil is holy in Judaism?
- How does Professor Gaster explain the use of the oil?
- What do you think is the real miracle of Hanukkah?