Why did the Greeks Defile the Oil?

Our Sages1 describe the miracle of Chanukah as follows: During their occupation of the Holy Land, the Greeks entered the Heichal (the Sanctuary in the Beis HaMikdash) and defiled all the vessels of olive oil they found. After their defeat, the Maccabees were able to find only one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest intact. Though it contained enough oil for only one day, the rekindled Menorah burned miraculously for eight days, enough time for new oil to be prepared.

The Talmud clearly indicates that the Greeks’ defiling of the oil was intentional and systematic; they neither used it nor destroyed it. What did they gain by defiling it?

A Spiritual Conflict

This question can be answered by analyzing the nature of the conflict between the Greeks and the Jews. While building their empire, the Greeks did not usually attempt to eradicate indigenous populations; their goal was to Hellenize and assimilate them into their culture. This was their policy when they imposed their rule over Eretz Yisrael.

This is why the prayer beginning VeAl HaNissim2 states that the Greeks endeavored to force the Jews to “forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will” — to forget the Torah as it is connected to G‑d.

The Greeks appreciated the wisdom and beauty of the Torah. What they opposed was the concept of Torah as G‑dly revelation. They would have liked the Jewish people to study Torah in the same way they would have studied human wis­dom, insensitive to its G‑dliness that transcends the bounds of intellect.

“The Decrees of Your Will”

Likewise, the Greeks did not object to the fulfillment of the commandments per se, recognizing that every culture, including their own, has rituals. Their antagonism was aroused by the idea that mitzvos are a unique means of con­necting to G‑d which take us beyond human limits.

This idea is alluded to in the phrase from VeAl HaNissim which speaks of chukei retzonecha (“the decrees of Your will”). There are three categories of commandments: mishpa­tim (lit., “judgments”), eidos (lit., “testimonials”), and chukim (lit., “decrees”).3 Mishpatim are the mitzvos which appeal to reason, such as the prohibitions against theft and murder. The eidos commemorate events in Jewish history, a means of reliving the past and grasping its significance; for example, eating matzah on Pesach. The chukim are those mitzvos which are superrational, “a decree from Me, [which] you have no permission to question.”4

The eidos and the mishpatim enable us to relate to G‑d through means we can rationally appreciate; the chukim, by contrast, require us to rise above the limitations of our under­standing. And when we do so, these mitzvos connect us with G‑d’s infinite dimension. It was the observance of the chukim that irked the Greek mentality and countered their philoso­phy.5

Impure Light and the Battle Against It

In light of this, we can understand why the Greeks were so intent on defiling the oil. They wanted the Menorah to be lit with impure oil so that its light, symbolic of the light of Torah, would shine forth not in its pristine purity, but with a human, Greek touch.

The Jews responded to this challenge with mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice that leaps beyond the limits of reason. Though they were pitted against the world’s strongest military power, they were determined to fight, and even to surrender their lives, in order to be able to study “Your Torah” and carry out the “decrees of Your Will.”

The Power of a Single Cruse of Oil

This power of mesirus nefesh is symbolized by the one cruse of oil which still bore the seal of the High Priest. In describing the obligations of the High Priest, the Rambam writes:6 “His glory is to reside in the Beis HaMikdash through­out the day, and to go home only at night.... His home must be in Jerusalem and he may not depart from [it].”

The name Yerushalayim (ירושלים) is a composite of the two Hebrew words yirah and shalem (ירא and שלם), together implying “complete awe.”7 The fact that the High Priest never leaves Jerusalem means that he never abandons this all-encompassing fear of G‑d. Within each of our hearts, we all possess a similar quality. We, too, can relate to G‑d with the intensity of the High Priest.

The potential to attain this level is our “one cruse of oil.” It is hidden in every individual, begging to be discovered. Although a person might not uncover this internal connec­tion to G‑d in the ordinary circumstances of his life, when challenged, as in the case of the Maccabees, this inner con­nection will surface. And when this Divine bond comes to the fore, “[G‑d will] deliver the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few,”8 for nothing can withstand its power.

In their struggle against the Greeks, the Maccabees tapped this resource — this single cruse of oil, revealing a level of soul that transcended their usual limits. In response, G‑d revealed forces that transcended the natural limits of this world.

The Chanukah miracle which followed serves as an eter­nal testimony to the essential connection to G‑d that the Greeks sought to sever. In our day as well, the Chanukah lights remind us that through “Your Torah” and “the decrees of Your will” — through an appreciation of the infinite dimension of the Torah and its commandments — we can develop a complete connection with G‑d. Succeeding in this will lead us to the time when our bond with G‑d will encom­pass all existence, for “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed,”9 with the coming of the Redemption. May this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos,Vol. III, Chanukah;Vol. X, p. 291;the maamar entitled LeHavin Inyan Chanukah 5739;Letters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, (in English), pp. 204-207