One of the more popular questions asked about Chanukah is why is it celebrated eight days if the miracle of the oil was only for seven days? Meaning, if the people who rededicated the holy Temple found enough oil to last one day, then that one day isn’t a miracle!
Of course, the supposition that they celebrated eight days because of the miracle of the oil is only one view. There are other ways to look at Chanukah, through history and through precedent that may help us have a deeper appreciation for the holiday.
In Book of Maccabees I Chapter 4, the classic work of the Apocrypha states: “On the 25th of the ninth month, Chislev, in the year 148, they rose at dawn and offered a lawful sacrifice on the new altar of burnt offering which they had made. The altar was dedicated. … The whole people fell prostrate in adoration and then praised Heaven who had granted them success. For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar, joyfully offering burnt offerings…”
One of the reasons for choosing to celebrate eight days was because they had missed the holiday of Sukkot plus Shmini Atzeret on account of the fighting and sought to make it up, at least on a celebration level, at this time.
But even such a celebration has much deeper roots. Consider that the dedication and consecration of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle of the Wilderness, covered an eight-day period — the “yom ha shmini” is highly celebrated in the Torah portion of that name. And while that celebration was marred by the untimely and tragic deaths of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu, the day being defined as the eighth day indicates it followed seven prior days of celebration.
In the book of Melachim, at the dedication of the Temple build under Solomon’s financing and leadership, we find a depiction of a celebration for seven days, followed by an additional seven days. They had missed Yom Kippur that year, due to the pending completion, and sought to make it up to G-d through an additional celebration. Smack in the middle of the two seven days periods the verse (8:66) highlights an “eighth day” — presumably Shmini Atzeret — which was an extra special day of celebration.
Clearly, celebrations of this length were normal when it comes to the Temple’s dedication.
Did they observe an eight-day celebration at the completion of the building of the second Temple? Towards the end of Ezra Chapter 6, we are told the Temple was completed on the third day of Adar. A little over a month later, Pesach was observed in all its glory as a seven-day holiday. While a great many sacrifices were offered at the time of the completion of the construction, how long the dedication celebration went on is not recorded. Did they save their celebration for Pesach time? It is possible.
If it is true that their celebration was only seven days, how does that fit in with the proposed theory, that dedications of Temples are always eight days? Simple: The second Temple was missing something — it never rose to the level of the First Temple. It did not have an Ark, the High Priest did not have the Urim V’Tumim, and there was an air of this not being a complete return to the glory of the old days.
This leads us to the significance of the number eight. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes a powerful case for the significance of the number seven in the Torah and in all of Jewish life. Very few things are attached to the number eight, though they do include Shmini Atzeret, Brit Milah, and the number of strings in each tzitzit corner. He also mentions Shavuot as being the beginning of an eighth week (following seven complete weeks of Sefirat Ha’Omer), Jubilee as the beginning of an eighth cycle (following seven complete Shmittah cycles), as well as the eighth day being the day a baby animal to be used as an offering is now fit (prior to which it was to remain with its mother).
The midrash notes in the account of Creation that Sabbath turned to G-d and said, “You made a partner for each day — one has two, three has four, five has six. 1 has 2. What will be with me?” G-d replied, “Israel will be your partner.”
Rabbi Hirsch explained that seven is directly connected to G-d, but the eight represents the visible upholder of the seven. Shmini Atzeret is our way of celebrating with G-d one last time at the end of Sukkot. There is ample evidence that Shavuot — owing to its linkage to Pesach through the counting of the omer — is the eighth day of Pesach. Tzitzit and milah are public displays of G-d’s presence in our midst.
Thus a complete celebration of eight days, as indicated by the Divine hand the Maccabees and company felt at the conclusion of their defeat of Antiochus, was certainly warranted.
But I think there’s one more point to consider as well.
Antiochus famously outlawed three mitzvot: Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and circumcision. Isn’t it fascinating that an eight day Chanukah will always include at least one Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and its length of time reminds us of the mitzvah of Brit Milah.
The public displays of candles on Chanukah are our way of publicly demonstrating that the enemy was defeated, and his designs failed. And we very proudly observe Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh during Chanukah, and give a tribute to our most common eight-day celebration (a tribute to Brit Milah, because you can’t plan these things) through how this holiday is set up in the calendar.
May we be blessed to take the lesson of Chanukah, a public rededication to G-d, as we celebrate for eight days.