The basic story goes like this: The Syrian-Greeks entered the Temple and defiled all the oil there. When the Hasmoneans reclaimed the Temple, they searched for pure olive oil but found only one cruse of oil that still bore the seal of the High Priest. There was only enough oil to light the Menorah for one day, yet a miracle occurred and the flames remained burning for eight days.1

The question is, why did it take eight days to get new oil? There are two basic explanations.

  • There was pure olive oil in a town called Tekoa (a region that continues to produce olive oil today), which would require a four days’ journey. Therefore, they needed eight days to go there and come back.2
  • After the war, all the Jews were presumed to be in a state of ritual impurity resulting from contact with a dead body, and it takes seven days to be purified from such impurity. Only after they were ritually pure would they be able to obtain ritually pure olive oil on the eighth day.3

Shouldn’t Chanukah Be Seven Days?

While the above explanations sound simple enough, Rabbi Yosef Caro in his commentary Beit Yosef poses a glaring question. If there was enough oil in the flask to last one day, then the miraculous part was the oil lasting for the next seven days. Shouldn’t Chanukah, which celebrates the miracle of the oil, be celebrated for just seven days?

Many commentators, including Rabbi Yosef Caro himself, have proposed various answers to this question. (One even wrote a book in which he collected 1004 possible answers.) Here are but a few of them:

  1. Divided the oil: Knowing that it would take another eight days to procure pure oil, the Jews divided the jug of oil—which contained enough oil for only one night—into eight equal amounts. They figured that they would light one-eighth of the oil each of the next eight nights. Miraculously, each night, the oil that should have lasted only one-eighth of the night lasted for the entire night.5
  2. Jug remained full: After they filled the Menorah with oil on the first night, the jug remained full, and they were able to fill the Menorah the following night. The same thing happened the next seven days.6
  3. Menorah remained full: When the Jews entered the Sanctuary that first morning after lighting the Menorah, they found that the cups of the Menorah were still full of oil, despite having burned the entire night.7
    For a fascinating retelling of the Rebbe’s unique take8 on how this miracle took place, balanced with the fact that mitzvahs must be done with physical (non-miraculous) materials, see The Menorah Files.9
  4. The miracle of finding oil: The first day commemorates the miracle of actually finding a jug of pure oil, especially after the Greeks went out of their way to defile all of the oil in the Temple.10
  5. Military victory: We celebrate the first day to commemorate the miraculous victory over the Greeks.11
  6. Dedication of Temple: The first day commemorates the rededication of the Temple. In fact, the very word Chanukah means “dedication.”12
    Alternatively, based on the verse “Pay attention now, from this day and before—from the twenty-fourth [day] of the ninth [month]—from the day that the Temple of the L‑rd was founded, pay attention,”13 some commentaries believe that the first day of Chanukah celebrates the original dedication of the Second Temple. They explain that it was founded on the 24th and dedicated on the 25th of the month.14
  7. Like Sukkot: The commandment to light the Menorah with pure oil is written in the Torah15 immediately after the commandment to observe the Sukkot festival for eight days (including Shemini Atzeret). The sages saw this as a divine hint that Chanukah should be celebrated for eight days.16
    Some go further and explain that since the eight-day holiday of Sukkot (and Shemini Atzeret) were not celebrated in the Temple that year, they instituted Chanukah for eight days.17
  8. Thinner wicks: Knowing that they had a minimum amount of oil, and it would take eight days to get more, they thinned the wicks so as to use only one-eighth of the oil in the Menorah. Miraculously, the flame was as strong as if they had used full-sized wicks.18
  9. More oil for Shabbat: The year that the Chanukah story occurred, the 25th of Kislev was Shabbat, so they actually lit the Menorah in the Temple before dark on the evening of the 24th of Kislev. They therefore needed more than a day’s worth of oil, and the fact that the flames lasted through that first day was already miraculous.19
  10. Not even enough for one day: One variant of the Talmud (found in the Geonic-era work the Sheiltot) reads that they did not even have enough oil for one day.20
  11. Just one light: The jug only had enough oil for one of the seven lights of the Menorah for one day, but it lasted for all seven lights of the Menorah for eight days.21
  12. Circumcision: One of the main mitzvahs the Greeks outlawed was brit milah (circumcision), which is done on the eighth day after the child is born. Part of the celebration of Chanukah was that the Jews were finally allowed to openly perform this mitzvah, which represents the bond between the Jewish people and G‑d. The sages therefore instituted that Chanukah be commemorated for eight days (instead of seven), corresponding to the brit milah.22
  13. The number eight: Technically, due to the circumstances, the Jews would have been permitted to use impure oil for the Menorah. G‑d performed a miracle to show His love and appreciation for the Jewish people, giving them the opportunity to do the mitzvah in the optimal way. Thus, on a mystical level, the miracle of the oil was a suprarational miracle that there wasn’t even a need for.
    While seven represents the natural order of the world (seven days of the week, cycle of seven years for Shemitah, etc.), the number eight represents the connection between G‑d and the Jewish people that is higher than the natural order. It is for this reason that Chanukah, which represents this suprarational connection, was established for eight days. Likewise, we find in Midrashic sources that the era of the final redemption is represented by the number eight, which reflects a relationship with G‑d that is higher than nature.23
    May we merit the final redemption speedily in our days!