Why Eight Days?
“What is Chanuka?”
The gemara asks this question after a halachic discussion of the Rabbinical mitzvah to light the Chanuka lamps for eight days. Rashi explains the gemara’s question to mean: “For which miracle was Chanuka established as a holiday (i.e. the miraculous military victory or the miraculous eight days that the Menorah remained lit in the Beit Hamikdash using one day’s amount of oil)?”
The gemara’s answer emphasizes the military miracle, which may perhaps indicate the principal basis for enacting the mitzvah. However, regardless of the reason, the mitzvah to light lamps for Chanuka for eight days seems puzzling. If the reason is to commemorate the miraculous military success, then one day should be appropriate (like Purim). And if the reason is to recall the miracle of the Menorah, lighting for seven nights would seem logical. There was enough pure oil for it to naturally burn for the first day, so that the miracle was only for seven days! (Last week, regarding the Rabbinical ban on reading by the light of a lamp on Shabbat, we addressed the topic of “revealed reasons for a mitzvah.”)
Here are eight possible answers, among more than a hundred that the commentaries offer:
1. They divided one night’s oil into eight portions. Miraculously, each portion lasted an entire night.
2. The Greeks ransacked the Temple many days in search of oil to defile. Despite their strength and numbers they overlooked one flask. A few weak, battle-weary Jews found it immediately.
3. Seven days commemorate the miracle of the oil, and one day commemorates the miracle that a few weak Jewish soldiers defeated the mighty Greek legions.
4. Wanting the oil to last, they made the wicks one-eighth of the normal thickness. Nevertheless, the flames burned just as brightly as if the wicks had been the normal thickness.
5. The golden Menorah in the Temple was ritually impure. So were all the Jewish soldiers, having come in contact with death on the battlefield. Therefore, they were forced to make a temporary earthenware Menorah, because earthenware is more resistant to impurity. But earthenware is porous, and when it’s new it absorbs a small but significant part of any oil put in it. Therefore, one night’s oil for a gold Menorah was not sufficient for an earthenware Menorah because some of the oil is lost to absorption.
6. In one account, the text reads “and there wasn’t enough (oil) it to burn even one day...”
7. Chanuka occurred in the year 3622 (139 BCE). Calendar calculations and other historical sources indicate that the 25th of Kislev, the first day of Chanuka, fell on Shabbat that year. Therefore, they needed to light the Menorah before sunset of Friday night, and consequently needed a little more than a night’s-worth of oil.
8. The commandment to light the Menorah with pure oil is written in the Torah (Leviticus, chapters 23 and 24) immediately after the commandment to observe the Succot festival for 8 days (7 days of Succot followed by Shemini Atzeret). Our Sages saw this as a Divine hint that Chanuka should be for 8 days.