Hanukah and the Enhancement of Misvot
The Bet Yosef (commentary to the Tur by Maran, Rav Yosef Karo) poses the famous question of why we celebrate for eight days the great miracle of the oil which sustained the lamps of the Menorah for eight nights. After all, the Gemara states clearly that the lone jug of pure oil which was found in the Bet Ha’mikdash after the Greeks were driven from the site contained enough oil for one night. As such, the miracle began not the first night, but the second night, when the candles miraculously burned. It thus turns out that a seven-day miracle was performed for the Jews of the time, not an eight-day miracle – and yet we celebrate for eight days.
Hundreds of answers have been given to this answer, one of which was offered in the book called Shabbat Shel Mi. The Gemara says that when the Kohanim searched for oil, they found only one jug which bore "the seal of the Kohen Gadol," proving that it had not been tampered with by the Greeks. What was this seal? Why would the Kohen Gadol place his personal seal on the jug of oil used for the Menorah?
The Shabbat Shel Mi offers a brilliant answer to this question. In the times of the Bet Ha’mikdash, the Kohen Gadol was required to bring a special grain offering – called the "Minhat Habitin" – each day, which consisted of flour and oil. Halacha requires the Kohen Gadol to use his own personal flour and oil for fulfilling this obligation. Quite possibly, then, the jug of oil found in the Bet Ha’mikdash after the victory over the Greeks was oil which the Kohen Gadol had reserved for his "Minhat Habitin." This was not oil which was designated for the kindling of the Menorah, but rather the Kohen Gadol’s personal oil which he had set aside for his daily offering. Since the jug still bore the Kohen Gadol’s seal, the Kohanim knew that it had not been defiled by the Greeks, and could thus be used for the kindling of the Menorah. (This was not considered "stealing" the Kohen Gadol’s personal oil, because the Kohen Gadol had presumably despaired from ever retrieving this jug after the Greeks plundered the Bet Ha’mikdash. Moreover, the Kohanim who kindled the Menorah had every reason to assume that the owner of this oil would happily grant his permission for the oil to be used for the Menorah.)
On this basis, the Shabbat Shel Mi explains why we celebrate Hanukah for eight days. Halacha requires the Kohen Gadol to use 3 "Log" of oil for his daily offering, whereas each of the seven lamps of the Menorah was to be filled with .5 "Log," for a total of 3.5 "Log." It thus turns out that there was not enough pure oil even for one complete night. Although there was enough oil to sustain the candles of the Menorah for most of one night, it was not enough to last throughout the night, and so the miracle transpired for eight nights, and not just for seven nights.
We might, however, question this explanation, in light of an important distinction drawn by Halacha between the oil used for the Kohen Gadol’s daily offering and the oil used for the Menorah. The Torah introduces a special requirement that the oil used for the kindling of the Menorah must be "Katit" – virgin oil, the first drops squeezed from the olive. This requirement for "top grade" oil is unique to the kindling of the Menorah, and does not apply to the oil used for the sacrifices. We must therefore ask, how did the Kohanim use the personal oil of the Kohen Gadol, which he had set aside for his daily Minha offering, for the Misva of lighting of the Menorah, for which a higher standard of oil is required?
Apparently, according to this explanation, the seal of the Kohen Gadol included a note stating that this jug contained the highest quality oil. Although Halacha does not require the highest quality oil for the Kohen Gadol’s offering, this Kohen Gadol nevertheless strove for the highest standards in Misva performance, and so he ensured to use for his daily offering the same pristine oil that Halacha requires for the kindling of the Menorah. And for this reason, the oil discovered after the Greeks were driven from the Bet Ha’mikdash was used for the Menorah.
This helps answer another famous question asked about the Hanukah celebration – why the Sages established different levels of observance. The Gemara teaches that the basic requirement of Hanukah candle lighting is just one candle for each household, each night of Hanukah. There is then the higher level – "Mehadrin" – which is fulfilled by lighting one candle each night for each household member. The highest level – "Mehadrin Min Ha’mehadrin" – is to light an additional candle each successive night of Hanukah. Of course, we have accepted the custom to adhere to the highest standard, the standard of "Mehadrin Min Ha’mehadrin." Many have asked why the Sages instituted the Misva in this fashion. Why did they establish additional levels of performance, beyond the strict requirement?
The answer might lie in the explanation developed above for the miracle of the oil. The entire miracle happened because of a Kohen Gadol who was not content with meeting his basic halachic requirements, and instead strove for higher and higher standards. It is only because of his commitment to "Mehadrin Min Ha’mehadrin," the highest levels of Misva observance, that there was oil with which to kindle the Menorah. We therefore commemorate this miracle by observing the standard of "Mehadrin Min Ha’mehadrin," lighting candles in the best possible way.
May we always strive for higher standards in our performance of Misvot, and constantly look for ways to enhance our service of Hashem, each and every day.