A Modern-Day Hanukkah Miracle
Next week history will be made as experts reveal – and light – a batch of pure olive oil precisely as it was used in the Temple – the first in 2000 years.
Jews throughout the world are ushering in the festival of Hanukkah Tuesday evening with the lighting of the hanukkiah – the 9-branched candelabra often referred to as a “menorah” after the 7-branched version that was lit daily in the holy Temple, prior to its destruction in 70 CE.
The eight-day festival marks the victory of the Maccabees – a group of Jewish rebels – over the Syrian-Greek occupiers of Israel, and in particular the liberation of the Temple Mount and re-sanctification of the Temple in 164 BCE, which included the lighting of the Menorah.
But one hanukkiah-lighting taking place in Jerusalem next week will have particular significance: for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, experts have reproduced the pure olive oil precisely as it was used in the Temple to light the Menorah.
This “real-life Hanukkah miracle” comes courtesy of the Temple Institute, an organization dedicated to educating and raising awareness about the importance of the Temple Mount and the holy Temple itself, and preparing for its eventual rebuilding. The historic lighting will take place at the end of a procession through the Old City of Jerusalem on the seventh night of Hanukkah, Monday December 22nd.
The oil’s “purity” is not just physical; among the many complex laws surrounding the Menorah’s olive oil is a critical requirement that it remain ritually pure – not an easy task in an age when the Jewish laws (halakhot) surrounding ritual purity have been widely neglected and forgotten due to the fact that most apply only to the Temple service.
But it is precisely that challenge, explains Temple Institute International Director Rabbi Chaim Richman, which makes the project so poignant for this time of year. The Maccabees, too, were ritually impure at the time they liberated the Temple from Hellenistic control (having been fighting a bloody war against the Hellenists). In fact, the “Hanukkah miracle” commemorated via the lighting of the hanukkiah is the very fact that the Jewish freedom-fighters were able to locate a pure jug of olive oil despite the defilement of the Temple – a jug which miraculously burned for eight full days despite only containing enough for a single day.
“This is unprecedented… really in the entire recorded history since the Temple’s destruction it hasn’t happened. We are resurrecting the ancient laws of ritual purity,” Rabbi Richman told Arutz Sheva.
“There is a misconception held by many that the oil can’t be made now because we are all technically ritually impure. It’s true that there are many very complicated halakhot involved, but it is doable,” he continues, pointing to how the Maccabees still lit the Menorah and set about immediately producing more despite their own ritual impurity at the time.
Since its founding in 1987, the Temple Institute has led countless projects to “prepare for the rebuilding of the Temple”, on various levels – from constructing the various Temple vessels to education and awareness-raising about a topic that has remained largely out of the Jewish experience for nearly two millennia.
Breaking such “misconceptions” which surround the Temple and Temple Mount have been its primary battle, “but in the past couple of years there’s been a new wave, a new breakthrough in Jewish consciousness,” explains Rabbi Richman – from a college to train Kohanim (Temple priests), to dry-runs enacting the Temple sacrifices and the recent Water Libation ceremony (simchat beit hashoeiva) conducted earlier this year.
“These things are a new level in consciousness regarding the Temple because they involve the public,” Rabbi Richman explains, “and this project is the most exciting so far.”
The topic of ritual purity is largely unknown in modern times even to many of the greatest Torah scholars; “it is a highly specialized subject,” Rabbi Richman notes. As such, the Temple Institute project has been closely supervised and led by Rabbi Azaryah Ariel, who heads the Institute’s kollel (full-time Torah-study program) and is one of the very few world experts on the matter.
But why now?
“It’s a natural progression,” says Rabbi Richman. “For years the whole issue of the Temple was sort of a taboo, because for nearly 2,000 years Judaism had been forced to exist without it.”
“Reconnecting to authentic Judaism is a process – that’s why at first, the Institute focused on things that were within our reach, so to speak, like awareness-raising and education, and the physical production of all the various vessels and vestments used by the Kohanim.
“Today, thank God, the whole concept of the Temple and the Temple Mount has become so much more mainstream, particularly now after the attempted murder of (Temple Mount activist) Yehuda Glick – which only made us more determined.
“Now it is understood: we’re not joking, this is mainstream Judaism.”
“That’s why these projects are so much more exciting than any of those which came before, because the am (people) are involved, coming to pick olives, to see how things are done, and take a real interest,” Rabbi Richman continues, expressing his hope that next year yeshivas will send their students to join in for “a hands-on experience of what Hanukkah is all about; to connect with the Torah of the Land of Israel.”
For him, that is perhaps the most important aspect of the entire endeavor.
“People need to realize that the Temple, and the mitzvot (Torah commandments) and halakhot which surround it are not ‘legends’ – they’re real. The Torah commands us to do these things and they are within our reach,” he insists.
“For me, that’s really the definition of a miracle: something God let’s us participate in. We, the Jews, physically lit the lights which shone for eight days, and won the victories against the odds against the Greeks – through a Divine miracle, of course, but with our own physical participation.
“When we made this oil we looked at each other and said: ‘Wow, now we understand the miracle of the oil!'”
Turning to the festival itself, Rabbi Richman compared Monday’s lighting to the Sukkot Water Libation reenactment earlier this year.
“Hanukkah is a battle for our Jewish home. Unlike Sukkot, when we leave our homes, on Hanukkah we bring the light of the Temple into our homes, and these projects show that it is the will of the Jewish people to stand up for authentic Jewish values.
“It’s demonstrating that it’s real, it can be done – the miracle is that the Temple is within our grasp, it’s not just mythology. This is the revitalization of the true Torah of the Land of Israel.”
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