Shabbat 16 - 22
What is Chanuka?
"What is Chanuka?" asks the gemara after already discussing some of the laws pertaining to the lighting of lamps during these eight days.
The meaning of the question, explains Rashi, is "For which miracle was Chanuka established as a holiday?"
Two miracles took place in connection with the successful revolt of the Maccabeans against the Hellenistic tyranny which waged war on Jewish religious practice. One was the fact that G-d "delivered the strong into the hand of the weak and the many into the hand of the few". The other is that the one-day supply of spiritually pure oil the victors found for lighting the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash lasted for eight days until they were able to replenish their supply.
The emphasis which the gemara places on the second miracle indicates that this was the principal basis for Chanuka. The question arises, however, why it was established for eight days. There was enough oil to naturally burn for the first day so that the miracle was only for seven days!
Of the scores of resolutions to this problem which have been offered by commentaries throughout the centuries, perhaps the simplest is that we light the Chanukah lamps an extra day in honor of the miraculous military victory for which we also offer thanks to G-d in our Al Hanissim prayer.
- Shabbat 21b
What the Sages Say
"Beit Hillel rule that on the first day of Chanukah we light one lamp and each day we add another, in contrast to Beit Shammais position that we begin with eight and go down one each successive day. Their reason is that one must always ascend in spiritual matters and not descend."
- The Sage Ulla, Shabbat 21b