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Olive oil as part of the miracle of Hannukah

6 December, 2012

In last year’s Hannukah post, we explained the origin of the holiday. Eight days of celebration recalling the victory of the Jewish Maccabee fighters over the Greeks that led to the capture, purification and rededication of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple.

Because of the relative “modernity” of Hannukah’s origin, it does not have the same strictures as the festivals given to us in the Torah. The only Sabbath day or days of Hannukah are where it coincides with the weekly Sabbath. There are no restrictions on food, like on the Day of Atonement or Passover.

Almost the opposite, in fact, as most Jewish Israelis cast off their diets for eight days’ worth of oily foods! All to remember the single cruse of purified olive oil available to the fighters who wanted to light the menorah in the Holy Temple—and needed eight days to gather and press olives to do so. Fried treats from around the world (filled donuts, Persian bimuelos fried dough balls, potato latkes, German apple fritters and more) show up at bakeries, family dinners and work parties.

Although the feasting is fun, the central message of Hannukah comes to us through the lighting of the menorah. One candle per night is added—using olive oil with a wick instead of a wax candle is a popular choice in Israel—until the menorah is full on the eighth evening. Although a popular Hannukah menorah design hearkens to the menorah used in the Holy Temple, that one had only seven branches and a Hannukah menorah must have eight.

It is the eight-day miracle that is the focus of the holiday, and “publicizing the miracle” through the Hannukah lights is the most important part. Israelis light their menorahs in windows facing the street (when possible), or even outside their homes in weatherproof boxes. (Thank God, we have experienced some moderate rains so far this winter, with more expected during the holiday.) There are even candle lighting ceremonies in Israel’s shopping malls and at supermarkets as darkness falls in the evening.

But contained within the “miracle of the oil” were other miracles: The miracle of a small army overcoming the mighty Greeks, and the miracle of survival of traditional Judaism over pervasive Hellenization. In every generation, in every year perhaps, there are miracles small and big to celebrate during these joyous days.

We wish all who celebrate a “chag urim sameach,” a Happy Festival of Lights.

 
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