The Beit Yosef’s Question on Chanukah Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


One of the most celebrated questions about Chanukah is “the Beit Yosef’s question” regarding the number of days we celebrate.  In the following two essays, we shall present the question and discuss seven answers that have been offered.  I thank the 5766 Y9 Gemara Shiur for its many wonderful insights that helped me formulate my ideas on this topic.

There are actually many more than seven answers to this question.  The proliferation of solutions seems to stem from the fact that virtually no answer that is suggested presents a conclusive solution to the problem, as serious questions are raised against each one. 

We should note at the outset that although this problem is commonly referred to as “the Beit Yosef’s question” , the issue was actually discussed centuries before the Rav Yosef Karo wrote his Beit Yosef commentary to the Tur.  Many of the “Chachmei Provence”, the Rishonim of Southern France such as the Meiri and the Ri of Lunel, already grapple with this issue.   

The Problem 

The Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 670 s.v. VeHaTaam) wonders why we celebrate Chanukah for eight days if we are celebrating the miracle (as presented in Shabbat 21b) that oil that should have lasted for only one day instead lasted for eight.  We should celebrate Chanukah for seven days, since only seven days of the burning of the oil were miraculous! 

The answers to this question come in two basic varieties.  One strategy is to try to argue that the miracle encompassed all eight days.  The other approach is to concede that only seven of the days of the oil burning were miraculous but to find a reason why Chazal nevertheless instituted the celebration of Chanukah for eight days.  In this essay, we will present approaches of the first variety, and in our subsequent issue we shall (IY”H and B”N) present approaches of the second variety.   

Solution #1 - Splitting the Oil into Eight Parts 

The Beit Yosef’s first answer to this question is that the since the Kohanim knew that they needed oil for eight days (the time it would take to procure more oil), they split the supply they had into eight parts.  Thus, on each of the eight days a miracle occurred, since oil that should have lasted for an eighth of a night lasted an entire night.  We should note that a number of the Chachmei Provence (cited in the Encyclopedia Talmudit 16:246 note 79) already offered this solution.

Authorities such as the Meiri (Shabbat 21b), Maharal (commentary to Shabbat 21b) and Pri Chadash (O.C. 670) question this answer.  They note that Halacha (Menachot 89a) requires that one place enough oil in the Menorah to last for an entire night.  It is inconceivable that the Kohanim violated this rule simply due to lack of oil.  One cannot respond, they argue, that they relied on a miracle, due to the rule of “Ein Somchin Al HaNeis,” we do not rely upon miracles (Pesachim 64b). 

The Yereiim (in his commentary to the Smag) defends this approach by saying that the obligation to place a full night’s supply of oil in the Menorah is merely a Halachic preference (Lechatchilla) but not an absolute requirement.  One could suggest that the Kohanim decided to forego the preferred quantity because they were confident (but not reliant upon the fact) that a miracle would occur.  This confidence may have stemmed from witnessing the Chashmonaim’s miraculous defeat of the Syrian-Greeks.  Perhaps they reasoned that just as Hashem performed a miracle on the battlefield, He would perform another miracle in the Beit HaMikdash.  The fact that the Menorah’s light symbolizes Hashem’s presence among the Jewish People (Shabbat 22b) might also have sparked this confidence.  Our struggle with the Syrian-Greeks was grounded in an ideological battle, as the Syrian-Greeks sought to erase Torah life and replace it completely with Greek culture. 

The Pri Chadash (O.C. 670) suggests a variation of this approach.  Perhaps all the oil was placed in on the first night, and the miracle was that it was only reduced by one eighth every evening.  The advantage of this approach is that it avoids the problems of the failure to place the required amount of oil into the Menorah and the consequent reliance upon a miracle.   

Solutions Two and Three – Replenishment of the Oil 

The Beit Yosef offers two alternative solutions to his problem.  He first suggests that on each night, when the oil was poured from the container into the Menorah, the jug remained completely full (reminiscent of the miracle performed by Elisha that is recorded in the fourth chapter of Melachim Bet).  Another suggestion is that after each evening, all the oil remained in the Menorah (reminiscent of the miracle of the Sneh, the burning bush, recorded in the third chapter of Sefer Shemot).  We note again that these two solutions already appear in the Rishonim (see Encyclopedia Talmudit ad. loc. notes 82 and 83).

Two basic questions have been raised regarding these solutions.  The Pri Chadash notes that these solutions shift the problem from the first day to the eighth day.  He notes that according to these two approaches, there was no miracle on the eighth day, since there would be no need for the oil to be replaced either in the jug or the Menorah on the last day.

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (cited in Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin’s HaMoadim BaHalacha p. 158) rejects these two answers, arguing that miraculously generated oil is not acceptable for the lighting of the Menorah.  He notes that the oil used for the Menorah is described not merely as “Shemen” (oil) but as “Shemen Zayit,” oil produced by an olive tree.  This implies that it must be produced by an olive tree and not by a miracle.  A similar argument is made by the Radak (Melachim 2:4:7), who claims that Ovadia’s widow was not responsible to tithe the oil miraculously generated by Elisha since the rules of tithing apply to only naturally generated products and not to an item created by a miracle.  Rav Chaim therefore concludes that the miracle must lie in the quality of the oil and not in its quantity.  In other words, the miracle must be that the naturally generated oil lasted longer than it would have done normally (as in the first solution of the Beit Yosef) as opposed to the oil having been generated miraculously (in the second and third solutions of the Beit Yosef).

Interestingly, the Taz (O.C. 670:1) poses a question on all three answers offered by the Beit Yosef.  He asks why, if any of these answers are correct, it is not recorded in any classical source that this is what actually occurred.  One might respond that the nature of Biblical and Talmudic writing is not to explicitly state everything but to merely hint at some points for succeeding generations to discover (see Chullin 7a). 

We should note that the Pri Chadash (ad. loc.) presents a variation on solutions two and three, suggesting that a bit of oil was placed in the Menorah and the Menorah was completely filled (miraculously) with just that bit of oil.  The advantage of this variation is that since the miraculously generated oil emerged from already existing oil, it is acceptable for the Menorah.  This is because of a Halachic principle of “Yotzi”, that something has the same status as that from which it was generated (see Bechorot 5b).

Another advantage to this approach (as noted by the Taz) is that the Zohar teaches (also see the Ramban to Bereishit 6:19) that Hashem no longer creates anything ex nihilo (Yeish MeiAyin, from nothing), but rather generates from something that already exists (Yeish MeiYeish).  Therefore, it is preferable to say that the oil was miraculously generated from preexisting oil as opposed to being regenerated from nothing after all of the previous evening’s oil was consumed.   

Solution # 4 – The She’iltot’s Alternative Text 

The standard text of our Gemara states, “There was enough oil for only one day.”  The Birkei Yosef (O.C. 670) notes that the text of the She’iltot (She’ilta 26) states, “There was not sufficient oil even for one day.”  Rabbeinu Yerucham (9:1) also presents this text.  The Birkei Yosef notes that according to this text, the Beit Yosef’s question is solved, because according to the alternative text a miracle occurred even on the first day, since the oil should not have lasted even for one day.

The Netziv (in his authoritative commentary to the She’iltot ad. loc.), however, emends the text of the She’iltot to be in accord with the standard text of our Gemara.  Indeed, the editors of the Encyclopedia Talmudit (ad. loc. note 87) note that the ancient Talmudic manuscripts that they inspected all have the standard text (that there was enough for one day).  Accordingly, this alternative text does not adequately solve our problem.

This appears to be an example of a principle of textual criticism that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein told me was stressed when he was studying for his doctorate in English literature at Harvard University: the more difficult text is generally regarded as the more reliable one.  It is highly unlikely that someone would emend a text to be more difficult to understand.  Instead, it is far more likely that the text that solves a problem is a corrupted text, because someone might have emended the text in order to solve the problem (see Rabbeinu Tam’s introduction to his Sefer HaYashar).

Next week, we shall (IY”H and B”N) explore solutions that concede that only seven of the days were miraculous but present reasons why Chazal nevertheless instituted eight days of Chanukah. 

The Beit Yosef’s Question on Chanukah – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Estate Planning– Health Care Proxies and Living Wills by Rabbi Chaim Jachter