The Beraita in the Gemara (Shabbat 21b) and the text of Al HaNissim present the holiday of Chanukah with differing accents. The Beraita focuses primarily on the miracle related to the cruse of oil which the Jews found in the Beit HaMikdash, a cruse containing only one night’s worth of oil which miraculously remained lit for eight days. The military battle between the Greeks and Jews, on the other hand, is mentioned in passing in the Beraita merely as a background point for the Jews’ conquest of the Beit HaMikdash and discovery of the cruse of oil. In contrast, the text of Al HaNissim focuses almost exclusively on the miraculous military victory the Jews achieved against the Greeks, the defeat of the mighty Greek army at the hands of the miniscule collection of Jewish soldiers. There is no mention of the miraculous lighting of the Menorah, only that of the Chashmona’im’s lighting candles as part of their celebration and the subsequent purification of the Beit HaMikdash.
Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, in his commentary on the Siddur entitled “Baruch SheAmar,” argues that the focus of each source and the highlighting of its respective theme is intentional and purposeful. The text of Al HaNissim which is incorporated into every Tefillah and Birkat HaMazon throughout Chanukah must necessarily be accessible and relatable to every Jew, young and old, simpleton and scholar alike. All Jews are obligated in Tefillah, and all Jews must recite Birkat HaMazon following their meal. As a result, the text of Al HaNissim focuses on the miraculous military victory. The threat to life during battle and the physical relief that ensued from the Jews’ miraculous victory is concrete, tangible, and relatable to all Jews. In contrast, the Beraita recorded in the Gemara addresses a far narrower audience, the population of individuals studying and teaching Torah in the Beit Midrash. For this reason, the focus of the Beraita shifts from the relatable, yet secondary, account of the military victory to a more abstract, yet central and lofty, theme relating to the miracle of the cruse of oil. The significance of the miracle was not the duration of time during which the oil remained lit, per se, but rather the abstract, symbolic significance of that accomplishment, a significance that could be fully appreciated only in a more focused setting and by a narrower audience.
Numerous sources express the close association between Torah scholarship, on the one hand, and oil, on the other. The Gemara (Berachot 58a) records that someone who dreams about olive oil at night should anticipate experiencing the illumination of Torah. Similarly, the Gemara (Menachot 85b) explains that cities which excel in oil production, like Teko’a, also abound with scholars and wise individuals. Furthermore, the Gemara (Horiyot 13b) claims that a person who commonly consumes olive oil as part of his diet possesses the remarkable capacity of retrieving lost knowledge. Oil and Torah share a close relationship and connection with one another.
Rav Epstein explains, on the basis of this relationship, the deeper significance of the miraculous perpetuation of the lit oil. The chief battleground between the Jews and Greeks revolved around the Greeks’ efforts to cause the Jews to abandon Torah and to renege on their commitment to Mitzvah observance – “LeHashkicham Toratecha ULeHa’aviram MeiChukei Retzonecha.” The miracle which enabled the oil to remain lit well beyond its physical capacity is symbolic of the Jews’ commitment to Torah and Mitzvot. The perpetuation of the Jews’ commitment to Torah from one generation to the next defies logic and physical expectation, given the hardship and oppression that it, at times, entails. Yet, just as the oil continued burning beyond its physical capacity and time expectancy, so too does the light of Torah continue to burn within our nation. This vital lesson is recorded in the Beraita recorded in the Gemara where it can be taught and studied by those who could appreciate the abstract symbolism of the miracle and Torah’s staple in our national and religious lives.