Why is Hanukkah Eight Days?
Explaining why the holiday is so long.
Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, published by Jewish Publication Society.
When the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oils and when the Hasmoneans prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the Kohen Gadol. It contained only enough oil to light for one day, yet a miracle happened and they used it to light for eight days.
-B. Talmud Shabbat 21b
This aspect of the Hanukkah story, learned from the Talmud, is commonly taught to Jewish children in Hebrew and Sunday schools across America; and it is surely the most remembered part of the holiday narrative, told and retold throughout the world. Perhaps this miracle-centered version occurs so often because Jews are more familiar with the Talmud than with the Apocrypha where the historical books of the Maccabees are found.
Or perhaps the frequency is inspired by the emphasis on the oil and the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah); they offer something tangible with which to express our deep connection to and appreciation for the valor of our ancestors. Most likely though, the recounting of the miracle is so dominant and popular because it focuses on the role of God in this story, as opposed to the Maccabees' military accomplishments--a focus echoeing a phrase from the biblical Book of Zechariah that is always chanted during Hanukkah: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit..."
Whatever the reason, the talmudic legend remains the account of Hanukkah that most Jews know. Within it, however, are layers of items to ponder and criticize and questions to answer. For example, even people who seem to accept the legend and not question the miraculous nature will ask why we must celebrate for eight days; after all, if there was enough oil for one day, then the duration of the miracle was only seven days not eight! The common response from the tradition is that the oil burned extraordinarily slowly, diminishing only a bit for each of the eight days, and therein lies the miracle.
Beyond any symbolic explanations for the number eight lie some more practical, concrete, or commemorative explanations. One Rabbinic tradition says that the Hasmoneans may have needed eight days to become purified, after being in contact with the dead on the battlefield. Purification consisted of being sprinkled with clean water that had been mixed with the ashes of an unblemished, sacrificial red heifer.
The sprinkling would have occurred on days number three and seven, and only the next day could the Hasmoneans, now ritually cleansed, produce a new batch of purified oil. Another explanation, the one heard more often claims simply that it took eight days to obtain olives and crush them into oil.