Does God need a light at night?: The eternal flame in the Hanukkah candles

While that story has become a foundational part of the holiday, there are actually many clear reasons that led to the establishment of Hanukkah.

The eternal flame  in the Hanukkah candles (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The eternal flame in the Hanukkah candles
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The first rabbinic reference to Hanukkah is found in Megillat Taanit, dated to the late Second Temple. It is a series of dates, mostly based on military victories that took place toward the end of the Second Temple period. None are memorable to the modern reader except for two: Purim on the 14th and 15th of Adar, and Hanukkah on the 25 of Kislev for eight days. On all of these days one is not eulogize or fast. This rabbinic text is quoted word for word in the Babylonian Talmud section on Hanukkah. Missing in the original text is any reference to the miracle of the little cruse of oil that burned for eight days.
While that story has become a foundational part of the holiday, there are actually many clear reasons that led to the establishment of Hanukkah. Earlier sources in Josephus and the Book of Maccabees cite the renewal of religious Jewish identity at a time of Greek oppression, the recapture and rededication of the Temple, including restoration of sacrifices, and the reinstatement of Jewish monarchy, although unfortunately it would become corrupted soon after its establishment, leading to rabbinic disapproval of the Hasmonean dynasty.
Maccabees II explains that Hanukkah lasted for eight days to make up for the missed Sukkot holiday that year and involved the bringing of four species! Finally, a source in Avodah Zarah intimates that a winter holiday dedicated to proclaiming the greatness of our one God emerged already in the time of Adam in contrast to the pagan festivals celebrated around the winter solstice.
It is thus often asked why the miracle of the oil story became such an important part of the holiday narrative given all of these other elements. Without considering the historicity of the tale, it is worth noting that stories are often the most powerful vehicles for transmission of ideas and meaning. Thus, within the story it is possible to transmit all of the different reasons that relate to the powerful symbolism of Hanukkah.
For many years I have wondered about the origin of the narrative, and this year I was fortunate to mentor Caleb Adams, an education student at Pardes, who suggested an interesting and fairly obvious Talmudic explanation of how the rabbis came to reframe an earlier tradition into the Hanukkah miracle. It is a short passage in Tractate Shabbat that appears in the middle of various Talmudic discussions about the laws of Hanukkah candle lighting, and it has to do with the Temple.
SHABBAT 22B (Translation from Sefaria)
Rav Sheshet raised an objection. With regard to the Temple candelabrum, it is stated: “Outside the veil of the testimony, in the Tent of Meeting, shall Aaron order it from evening to morning before the Lord continually… ” (Leviticus 24:3). And does God require its light for illumination at night? Didn’t the children of Israel, all 40 years that they walked in the wilderness, walk exclusively by His light, the pillar of fire? Rather, the lighting of the candelabrum is testimony to mankind that the Divine Presence rests among Israel.
What is this testimony? Rav said: That is the westernmost lamp in the candelabrum in which the measure of oil placed was the same measure of oil as was placed in the other lamps, and nevertheless he would light the others from it each day and with it he would conclude.
Rav Sheshet brings a biblical verse in which Aaron the high priest was instructed to arrange the candles before the Lord every evening so that the flames burn until morning. Does God need light at night? That question is immediately refuted. Obviously not, since the Divine light in the shape of the pillar of fire led the people for 40 years in the desert! However, the lit menorah is a testimony that the Divine presence rests among Israel.
The Talmud wonders about the constancy of the testimony for it must be present all of the time and not just at night! Rav then brings the tradition that the westernmost branch was filled with the same amount of oil as the other branches but while they were predictably extinguished by morning, it remained lit until the following evening and was the source of fire for the lighting of the other branches. While this branch was also refueled at the same rate as the other branches, it remained continuously lit, and thus, had a miraculous, Divine element to it.
What powerfully emerges from this narrative is not the miracle of oil that did not burn out. Rather, it is the synergy between the human and the Divine. The first kindling of all seven branches of the menorah was done by Aaron after he filled them with oil. Only then, did God respond, bringing his Divine presence into the westernmost branch as eternal testimony to His presence among His people. That continuous flame became known as Ner Tamid, or the “eternal flame.” It is symbolically represented in synagogues by a light that never goes out in the sanctuary.
The seven-branched menorah in the Temple was the inspiration for the eight-wicked menorahs we light on Hanukkah and thus, the Ner Tamid was plausibly the inspiration for its reframing into the Hanukkah miracle. In other words, with the Temple destroyed and the candles of the menorah extinguished, the rabbinic enterprise was to inspire the Jewish people to actively feel God’s presence in their lives despite the loss of Temple and sacrifices. This was achieved by emphasizing the many rituals and practices that continue to be incumbent on the nation and testify to the ongoing covenant between God and Israel.
While Hanukkah, a rabbinically mandated holiday, emerged in the wake of the military victory that led to the rededication of the Temple, the theme of God’s presence represented in our homes rather than in the Temple by the candles or wicks that we light brings even more strength, structure and connection to the past with all present and future candle lightings.
Happy Hanukkah!
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.