I’ve heard a question about how many days Chanuka should be – since the oil burning the first day wasn’t a miracle, we should really only light for seven days. But I don’t remember the answer. Could you please “illuminate” this for me? Thanks “a latkes”.
A good question – and since you’ve penned such nice puns, you’ve spared me from having to do so. So let’s get straight to the answer.
First of all, a less well-known source offers a less well-known explanation as to why we observe Chanuka for eight days. Megilat Ta’anit (ch. 9) records, “Why did the Rabbis designate that Chanuka should be observed for eight days? Did Moshe not designate that the dedication of the tabernacle [the precedent for re-dedicating the Temple in Greek times] be only seven days? Rather, during the days of the Greek Empire, the Hasmoneans entered the sanctuary, rebuilt the altar, repaired its walls, replaced the sacred vessels, and were engaged in this work for eight days”. Therefore, the Chanuka we observe commemorates not only the dedication of the Menora, but also the dedication of the altar and the sacred vessels that extended a full eight days.
But the explanation that you refer to, found in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), that we commemorate the miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting eight, raises the question you mention which is asked by the commentaries – namely that we should only light for seven days. Many explanations are suggested. Here I’ll mention just a few.
The first day of the festival commemorates the miraculous military victory of the few and unarmed over the many massively armed. This first day thus celebrates their resting from their enemies. The remaining seven days commemorate the actual miracle of the oil lasting another seven days.
Another explanation posits that while the lighting of the first day was not particularly miraculous, the discovery of the one remaining jar of untainted oil marked with the seal of the High Priest was a miracle. Accordingly, the first day commemorates the miracle of finding of the oil, and the following seven commemorate the miracle of its lasting.
Other explanations suggest either that a small amount of oil went a long way on each day, or that the full amount burned very slowly and was miraculously spared. According to the first approach, the discovered one-day’s oil was divided into eight small portions with the intention that the Menora be lit for only a short time each. Miraculously, each day’s small amount burned the entire day. According to the second approach, the full days’ worth was used on the first day with the intention that it burn only that day, but miraculously, each day only a small amount was consumed such that the limited amount burned a full eight days. Either way, the miracle of the lighting occurred on the first day as well, hence our commemoration of the miracle of the lighting for eight days.
These last explanations imply yet another underlying miracle as well. The very fact that they did not despair from lighting the Menora despite their knowledge that they would not be able to fulfill the Torah command to light a “perpetual lamp” was itself a miracle which enables Israel to endure all generations of exile. Had Jews always based their present service of G‑d on what they surmised the future had in store for them, they would long since have lost the will to survive. However, miraculously, the people of Israel have placed their trust in G‑d, and have thus persevered through all times against all odds.