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Clearly, there was eight days worth of oil to begin with: An Alternative Look at the Chanukah Miracle

Mon, 12/22/2014 - 9:47am -- Ravid Tilles

What is the miracle of Chanukah? A trendy question during this time of year. There are two answers that I hear most often: the military victory and the miracle of the long-lasting oil. It is this second miracle, the one about oil, that gets the most “play” in our modern society. So many of our Chanukah traditions center around oil (lighting a Chanukiah and eating oily foods specifically).

The question that we have to ask ourselves about the account of the oil is whether there was actually a miracle at all. As the story goes, the Temple was ransacked and its sacred contents were contaminated, including the holy oil that was used for the daily lighting of the Menorah. The Kohen (Temple Priest) had wisely hidden some emergency oil, though it didn’t seem like it was going to be enough. The Jews thought that this single vessel would last for only one day, but in the end it lasted for eight days. This “miracle” bought enough time for the Priest to restock the Temple oil supply.

We often tell this story to our children as if there is a magical component. One day’s worth of oil miraculously became eight! It is as if we had one Chanukah candle in our hand and then we look down and we miraculously have eight. A something-out-of-nothing miracle. But I, as one who does not believe in something-out-of-nothing miracles, or magic, understand the situation a little differently.

Clearly, there was eight days worth of oil to begin with! Even if they had thought that there was only one day’s worth, come day eight, when that oil is still burning, it retroactively proves that there was eight days worth of oil all along. What we have here, therefore, is a story of miscalculation. The Temple Priests underestimated how long their oil could last. But there is a miracle. The miracle came from the human ingenuity and determination to stretch what seemed like one day’s worth of oil to last eight. They had the wisdom to allocate and conserve their limited resource in a way that saved our ancient religious practice. When someone is able to rise above a seemingly desperate moment, with help from the divine spark inside of themselves, that is a miracle worth noting and celebrating.

We, Jews and non-Jews, living in 2014 (almost 2015!) find ourselves in a very similar predicament as the Jews of 160 bce. Our resources are depleting. Our stockpiles are being consumed at staggering rates, with the global community desperate for alternative sources of energy. Not just the crude oil, the fuel that runs our cars, but the fuel that runs our human bodies…food. There are about 21,000 people who die from hunger everyday.  About 805 million of the world’s population are under fedYet there is enough food that exists in the world to feed every human on earth. In 2012 the Huffington Post released this article which explained how there is enough food being produced, but we are not allocating it properly. The article nails it on the head: “Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity.” Hunger is not a matter of limited resources, it’s a matter of miscalculation and misappropriation.

The global community has eight days worth of oil and we are acting like we have one. We are living the inverse of the miracle…we call that a “shanda.” The food distributors are misallocating, at best, and hoarding, at worst. Those of us who are blessed enough to not worry where our next meal will come from fall into bad habits of throwing out, wasting, or even over eating our food allotment. Each year about 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten because it is either in our garbage bags or the garbage of our grocery stores.

Every morning we say a blessing: Baruch Atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech Haolam, Sh’asa li kol tzarki. This often translates as Blessed are You, God, who provides for all of my needs. More literally, though, it translates to: Blessed are You, God, who has made everything that I need. Our world is invested with enough food and enough potential energy to give us all what we need to live productive lives. The question is how are we using it? How are we sharing? When we, as the human community, begin to allocate our resources more fairly and justly, we will live up to the divine charge of Chanukah. Take what you have been given, and share it with others. If we can do that, and we rid the world of hunger, it will be a true miracle.





Happy Chanukah!


Submitted by Steve Greenfield (not verified) on
Thank you for this teaching. There is scarcity but more important there is misallocation of food and wealth. We can't seem to get our plenty to the people who need it, for a variety of complicated reasons. We will gladly join you in making a contribution to Mazon, which actually advocates on food distribution issues as well as supports food banks, etc. But we as a society do need to look at the income inequality issue in practical ways that make living without poverty attainable. Hag S'meach.

Submitted by Joanne Skop (not verified) on
What a beautifully articulated truth. As I am about to sit down to make my charitable contributions for this year, the blog will inspire my choices. I want to add another organization to the list. Check out Heifer.org. It's one of my global favorites and if you read about it, you'll see why. Thank you Rabbi.

Submitted by Alice Laby (not verified) on
Wonderfully insightful commentary Rabbi. Chag Sameach to you and your family. Alice Laby

Submitted by Irene kroll (not verified) on
We agree with your comment. The world would be a better place if people cared about others. We choose to make our food donations to Long Island Cares the Chapin food pantry .


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