The Festival of Lights is different from other Jewish festivals. The fact that we celebrate it for eight days is exceptional, as all other Jewish festivals and Yom Tovim last one day, two days, or, at most, seven days.
The number of lights – eight – is also a break with the traditional seven-branched menorah, which was rekindled in the Temple after the victory over the pagan Syrian-Greeks.
We add a special prayer, Al HaNissim (“For the Miracles”) at every service, as we thank God for deliverance from our enemies: “Thou didst deliver the strong into the hands of the weak; the many into the hands of the few; the wicked into the hands of the righteous; and the arrogant into the hands of those who occupied themselves with Thy Torah.”
At each morning service we relate biblical accounts of the dedication of the altar at the time of Moses and the gifts brought by the twelve princes of Israel. We – a small nation facing a sea of evil – are comforted by the words “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech.4:6).
Although the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., it did not affect the celebration of Chanukah, which is centered mainly in the home. All these centuries later we still light the candles.
In the 3rd century C.E. our enemies launched their fanatic persecution of the Jewish people and kindling the Chanukah menorah was forbidden, but that only served to increase our esteem for the rite.
Light has great significance in Judaism. Even during the plague of darkness in Egypt “all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23). We pray to be placed “on the side of light” and the Zohar promises “a palace of light that opens only to him who occupies himself with the light of Torah.”
Why did it take the priests eight whole days to prepare more olive oil for the Temple menorah? The 25th day of Kislev marked the peak of the winter olive harvest season. The trees were heavy with oil-filled olives. The Maccabees’ hometown of Modi’in lay in the heart of the country’s richest olive-growing region. Under these favorable conditions, they could have quickly picked the olives, prepared the oil, and rushed it to the Temple in Jerusalem, just a day’s walk from Modi’in.
The explanation is that the special oil required for the Menorah was clear oil of beaten olives (Shemot 27:20). It was a two-part operation – first the beating and then the resulting olive oil mash was piled into flat fiber baskets, weighted to squeeze out the oil. It was not extracted by pressure but was allowed to seep out drop by drop, driven by gravity and the weight of the piled-up baskets. This special process took much longer, producing oil completely free of sediment and impurities.
The Festival of Lights takes on special meaning at this time of darkness, with Jews in Israel enduring daily stabbings, shootings, and car rammings and Jews around the world confronting a steady rise in anti-Semitism.
But no matter how dark the days, Chanukah has special meaning. The miracle is not just that of the flask of oil. The miracle is also that of the eternal beacon of light that transcends the transitory nature of human events.
The Chanukah lights, like the Jewish people, refuse to be extinguished.