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Q&A

Purity and Channukah

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I'm trying to figure something out about Channukah:

When the victorious Jews cleaned the temple they found only enough oil to light the menorah for 1 day and it took another 7 days before they had more oil.

I learned as a boy (and with no sources) that it took that long to travel to where there were olive trees, come back, and process the oil. But I was reading on wikipedia (yeah...I know) and the following claim was made (without a source) --

As the Maccabees searched for pure oil to light the menorah with, they found just one cruse of pure oil which still had the seal of the High Priest, the symbol of pure oil. This cruse contained just enough pure oil to keep the menorah lit for one day. In order to make pure oil however, individuals making the oil must be in a state of spiritual purity. Being soldiers returning from the battlefield, the Maccabees were deemed impure, and therefore could not make pure oil. Since the process of ritual purification after touching a corpse lasts seven days, the Maccabees could only produce additional pure oil after eight days: seven days of becoming pure including one day, once pure, to actually make the oil. Therefore, the Maccabees would have been unable to light the Menorah for seven days before the completion of new pure oil. Miraculously, the one cruse of oil had lasted for all eight days, and by that point new pure oil was ready.

If the concern was that the people were tamei met, then:

  1. How were they allowed to go in and cleanse the temple and touch the various keilim
  2. How could they light the menorah initially -- if they were tamei met, wouldn't the oil be defiled by their touching it?
  3. If they only found a little oil, how could they possibly have found a red heifer, or any saved ashes (and wouldn't that be a greater miracle, if they found some)?
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11 comments

Interesting question! I'd never heard the distance explanation, just the tumah meit one, but never thought about the implications that you've pointed out. I wonder if there's an element of "can't make it worse"; the temple was already defiled, after all, and maybe their actions at least moved things in the right direction? But for a permanent solution rather than a patch, you need to do it right? Just guessing; I look forward to seeing sourced answers. Monica Cellio‭ about 1 month ago

it also begs another question -- why didn't the Greeks loot the temple and take the solid gold menorah? rosends‭ about 1 month ago

@rosends The version of the story I'm familiar with is that the Greeks did, in fact, loot the Temple. The Menorah used then was a temporary one made out of torches held aloft somehow (perhaps by kohanim, at least part of the time). Harel13‭ about 1 month ago

@Harel13 The story is that they used iron spears to make a makeshift menorah. Gold is only the best way required to make as specified in the Torah. However, if necessary other metals can be used if sufficient gold is not available. sabbahillel‭ about 1 month ago

do the rules of kedusha apply to a makeshift menorah? rosends‭ about 1 month ago

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1 answer

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The following isn't necessarily the only answer, and the sources aren't necessarily the earliest. Also, this is just a partial answer for now.

What you were taught as a child is mentioned by the Ran to Shabbos 9b (in the pagination of the Rif) s.v. תנו רבנן (end):

ומשום הכי היו שמנה ימים מפני שהיה להם שמן טהור רחוק ארבעה ימים והוצרכו שמנה ימים בין הליכה וחזרה

The reason it was eight days was because they had pure oil four days away, so they needed eight days to go there and back.

However, the approach you found on Wikipedia is brought by the Pri Chadash to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 670:1 s.v. והטעם from the Mizrachi (Chiddushim on the Semag Hilchos Chanukah). The latter also infers it from the Rambam in Mishneh Torah Hilchos Chanukah 3:2, who says it took eight days to make the oil. I guess it should only take one day, so the other seven must have been for purification.

Now, the Mizrachi asks how could they light with the pure oil if they were spiritually impure, your exact question! The Mizrachi suggests that they used a very long stick to light the Menorah. Plain pieces of wood don't become impure, so the oil remained pure.

Then he asks how could they use the Menorah, which itself was impure. He says they made a wooden Menorah. This is actually a gemarra in Avodah Zarah 43a.

Now, the Pri Chadash seems to ask on the Mizrachi that he should have asked how was it possible to light the Menorah with a 135 amah stick (approx. 73 metres)[1]? It seems from this question that he understood the Mizrachi to be suggesting that they somehow got their wooden Menorah in the Heichal of the Temple, and lit it from the Temple Mount (where someone impure from the deceased is allowed to stand, after going to the mikvah (Keilim 1:8) using this long stick. This way they never went inside.

In any event, the Pri Chadash rejects the approach of the Mizrachi, because there's a rule that if the majority of the congregation is spiritually impure from the deceased, the laws of spiritual impurity are suspended for certain mitzvos. One of them is lighting the Menorah (Mishneh Torah Hilchos Tamidim UMussafim 3:10) (see the Mizrachi, who seems to be aware of this point). They couldn't use the impure oil that they found, because that was impure for different reasons than contact with the decased (the Greeks made them impure with different levels of impurity). They therefore only had the single jar they found of pure oil. They also couldn't make the new oil while impure, as that far we don't say. Therefore they had to wait until they were spiritually pure to make more oil. He admits though that you have to say that they were allowed to make the wooden Menorah while impure. So it seems he held they went straight into the Heichal and light their wooden Menorah directly.

How they found the ashes of the red heifer I'm not sure. I would guess it was hidden somewhere that the Greeks didn't have access to. I assume they had some somewhere and not that they made fresh ashes as that's more complicated to do and I'm not sure if they had enough time.


  1. Tosafos to Chullin 2b s.v. שמא יגע bring a similar type of question in a different context: הקשה רבינו אפרים איך יתכן שתהא סכין ארוכה כל כך מהר הבית עד עזרת ישראל ↩︎

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3 comments

Tangent, but how do you get from 135 amot to 729 meters? Isn't an amah a cubit or a step, neither of which is as much as even one meter? (Obviously the number here is extreme in any case; I'm just wondering about your unit translation.) Monica Cellio‭ about 1 month ago

@MonicaCellio an amah is the distance from your elbow to your middle finger. I went with Rav Moshe's opinion that it is 54cm. But you helped me realize I was off by one decimal place. robev‭ about 1 month ago

Ah, one decimal place would explain the problem! Monica Cellio‭ about 1 month ago

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