This is a guest post by Twin Cities Jewish Educator Sean Herstein.
In which ancient book can you read about Hanukah’s miracle of the oil? A) The Torah, B) The Book of the Maccabees, C) The Siddur, or D) The Talmud? The correct answer is “D” but do not fret if you didn’t get it right. Most do not.
The Torah does not mention the miracle of the small amount of oil that fueled the Eternal Flame in the Temple for eight days because the Torah’s story ends centuries before the revolt of the Maccabees. It would not make sense for the Torah to even know about the Syrian-Greeks! The Torah is the easiest book of the four to eliminate.
The Book of the Maccabees is not included in the Hebrew Bible but is included by some Christian churches in their bible. It includes the Hanukah story but it does not tell about the miracle of the oil. It does, however, introduce a second miracle – the military victory of the Jews over the army of Antiochus.
The siddur does not mention the miracle of the oil either. The additional prayer for Hanukah, Al haNissim, includes the following:
In the days of Matityahu … when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.
Nowhere does it mention the oil. Its emphasis is clearly on the military victory.
This leaves us with the Talmud.
The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) is the first source to mention the miracle of the oil. It tells the famous story of the lone jar of oil that was only supposed to provide enough for one day. Miraculously it lasted eight days, the amount of time necessary to make more oil.
What can we learn from these two miracles?
The miracle of the oil is the type of miracle where God steps in to alter the laws of nature. This is like the miracles related to the 10 plagues and the splitting of the sea. These types of miracles do not happen any more, so if we happen to find ourselves in the situation where we desperately need a miracle, the miracle of the oil does not provide a helpful model. However, the miracle of the military victory does.
Although the Book of Maccabees and the siddur attribute the victory to God, nothing would have happened unless the Maccabeees picked up their swords and shields and went to battle. This type of miracle is a partnership between God and humans. This is the type of miracle that we rely upon every day.
Due to the actions of brave and talented human beings, we are witness to miracles like the birth of healthy babies and the founding of the State of Israel. These miracles can serve to inspire and motivate us to action when we otherwise might not have the courage to act and, ultimately, to have a hand in controlling our own destinies.
Please let me know what miracles you see in the world today and may all of us have a wonderful Hanukah.