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What Do We Commemorate, the Miracle of Oil or the Victory?

What Do We Commemorate, the Miracle of Oil or the Victory?

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Dear Rabbi,

I’ve been reading through the prayer “v’al hanisim” – “about the miracles” which we recite daily during Hanukkah. Why is there no mention of the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days? Isn’t that the main Hanukkah miracle?

Answer:

Several Jewish thinkers and commentators ask your exact question!

Here is one explanation:

In essence, there are two miracles we celebrate on Hanukkah:

  1. The victory of a small band of unarmed Jews in the war against a strong army.
  2. The discovery of a pure cruse of oil which lasted for eight days and allowed the Jews to light the menorah in the Holy Temple after it was defiled by Greeks.

In the Talmud, the sages question “What is Hanukkah?” and their response describes the miracle of the oil.1 Clearly they give precedence to that miracle. But the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, explained that each miracle spotlights a different aspect of Hanukkah:

  1. The battle victory was a physical miracle that ensured freedom in the Land of Israel.
  2. The miracle of the oil was the miracle of religious freedom and demonstrates that there is Divine intervention in the natural cycles of life. There is something spiritually miraculous that sustains us. Light, which is not something that we can physically touch, symbolizes the miracle of the oil that kindled the lamps of the menorah.

Although the miracle of the oil is considered greater, both miracles are commemorated during Hanukkah. Keeping this in mind, if both miracles were mentioned side by side in the prayer, the miracle of the victory wouldn't seem as wondrous as the miracle of oil. Therefore, no mention is made of the oil in the v'al hanissim passage, which specifically thanks G‑d for the miraculous victory in battle.2

See A Lesson from the Greeks from our selection on Oil: Fueling the Light.

Footnotes
1.

The Talmud, Shabbat 21b.

2.

Likutei Sichot, vol. 25, p. 241.

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov is co-director, along with his wife Chanie, of Chabad of Northwest Indiana, and a member of Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi team.
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