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The Miracle of the First Night

The Miracle of the First Night


Certain facts are taken for granted. At times, however, a little thought raises real questions regarding the logic behind these concepts which are simply accepted at face value. For example: Chanukah is eight days long because the oil which would naturally have fueled the menorah for only one day miraculously lasted for eight. Everyone knows this since their days in Hebrew school. But does this make sense? If there was sufficient oil to burn for one day, then the miracle lasted only seven days. Why celebrate the first day, if nothing miraculous occurred then?

This question has long bothered Jewish scholars, and many, many answers have been suggested (click here for a short article on the topic). Most of these answers demonstrate how there was indeed some sort of miracle on the first day of Chanukah too. Perhaps, however, it is unnecessary to establish the occurrence of any miracle on the first day of Chanukah in order to justify its inclusion in the holiday. Perhaps we are celebrating the oil itself, which very naturally fueled the menorah on that day.

An interesting episode recounted in the Talmud1 will “illuminate” the matter:

The Mishnaic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was a renowned miracle-worker. Shortly after sunset one Friday evening, he noticed his daughter sobbing. Upon asking her the reason for her distress, she explained that she had mistakenly lit the Shabbat candles with vinegar instead of oil. Rabbi Chanina comforted his daughter: “Do not be troubled, my dear. The One who commanded oil to burn will command vinegar to burn . . .” Needless to say, the candles did not go out. In fact, they burned until the following night, when the havdalah candle (which accompanies the Saturday night ceremony signaling the end of the Shabbat) was kindled from their flames!

In the eyes of this holy sage, vinegar burning was no more spectacular than oil burning

This story is so striking and unique because Rabbi Chanina didn’t respond by saying, “Wanna see something amazing? Watch this miracle!” Rather, in the eyes of this holy sage, vinegar burning was no more spectacular than oil burning. The only difference between the two was how frequently they occur. If the definition of “miracle” is G‑dly intervention in personal or national affairs, then every phenomenon is miraculous—for everything that occurs is a direct result of G‑d’s command. “The Guardian of Israel never slumbers nor sleeps,” but His watchful eye can and usually does express itself in natural means. Nature is merely the curtain which conceals the grand Puppeteer from our sight.

Nevertheless, we treasure miracles, and holidays are instituted to commemorate the more consequential ones. We cherish those precious moments in history when G‑d chose supernatural means to come to our rescue, when the curtain was ripped away, leaving the puppeteer exposed. Rabbi Chanina had the ability to see through the curtain every day, but we don’t. To us, vinegar burning is a remarkable sight to behold.

Once the curtain has been temporarily lifted, the recognition that there is a puppeteer doesn’t fade even after the curtain is restored. After witnessing vinegar burning, we realize that oil’s ability to burn is also a result of G‑d’s command.

The seven miraculous days when the menorah remained lit bring us to understand that the first day was no less “miraculous.”


Taanit 25a.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
Image: Detail from a painting by Sarah Kranz. Ms. Kranz has been illustrating magazines, webzines and books (including five children’s books) since graduating from the Istituto Europeo di Design, Milan, in 1996. Her clients have included The New York Times and Money Marketing Magazine of London.
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Anonymous December 8, 2012

Burning Vinegar Fine. Then burn me a menorah of vinegar using the scientific method and make me a believer. Reply

Bension Shalom Rappaport Manchester, England December 4, 2012

when and where did chanukah take place? Just wondering the year and place the chanukah story took place. Reply

Anonymous Frisco, TX December 2, 2012

The Miracle of the First Night What I find most miraculous about the first night is the faith of those who lit the menorah despite knowing they had only enough oil for one night. Their faith was not unlike Moses who needed to trust G-d before leading G-d's people through the Red Sea. Moses took the step in faith and then G-d took care of the rest. Reply

Larry San Jose, California December 2, 2012

the miracle lasted 8 days If there was only enough oil for one day, then the oil would have disappeared on the first day. The miracle had to happen starting the first day so the oil would not be used up. Reply

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