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8 Blogs of Chanukah: Why did Antiochus’ army ruin all the oil in the Jerusalem Temple?

8 Blogs for 8 Nights of Chanukah
Blog #1: Oil and the Secret of the Jew

Question: Why did Antiochus’ army ruin all the oil in the Jerusalem Temple?

When Antiochus’ Assyrian-Greeks entered the Jerusalem Temple, they contaminated all the oils that were in the Temple. One would expect them to plunder the Temple’s gold and silver, the precious stones, as is the custom of warriors — yet the Talmud makes no mention of this type of pillaging. What possessed the Assyrian-Greeks to single-mindedly go about desecrating the oil, and with such thoroughness that it was only through a miracle that one jug was left untouched?

Oil played an important role in the Temple. It was used in special offerings and to fuel the Menorah. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and kings were anointed with it. What is special about oil?

The Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) point to oil’s refusal to mix with other liquids. Oil always rises to the top. It is a liquid that embodies transcendence, holiness. In Kabbalistic terms, oil is the embodiment of that aspect of the soul that relates to the Holy One in a manner that transcends intellect. Oil is the intuitive love and commitment of the soul to God that is not bound by the strictures of rationality and reasoning.

It was the “oil” aspect of the Jew, our commitment to God/godliness/holiness, that the Assyrian-Greeks could not abide. Our devotion to ethical living. Our commitment to social justice. Our Torah-based demand that we and the world live in a way that brings into the world tzedek (justice), emet (truth), ahava (love) and shalom (peace). When each of my actions is Godly-deed, an act that is bigger than me, that then becomes threating to those who would taint the world with egotism, self-indulgence and fear.

And so Antiochus’ armies went after the oil. Every enemy goes after the life-source of their opponent — the wells, the food stocks. The Assyrian-Greeks went after the oil. For therein resides the secret of the Jew.

This Chanukah, as you light candles (even if they are fueled by wax instead of oil), remember that we celebrate – in part – because of the triumph of holy living, ethical living, over self-interest, egotism and fear.

Come back each night to the blog for another of these 8 Blogs for 8 Nights: Answers to Questions You Never Thought About, which enhance your understanding of Chanukah. If you would answer the question differently, share your insights in a comment. I will make a donation to tzedakah for every comment written.

For Chanukah Resources to enhance your celebration – songsheets, blessing sheets, 8 Nights of Chanukah Tzedakah, 8 stories, and more – go to www.orami.org/chanukah

[Adapted from Victory of Light – Mitzvat Ner Chanukah 5738/1977, a discourse by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.]


  1. Marcy Cameron says:

    An interesting insight for our 1st night of celebration. Oil is still so important in our lives – in the world. We still fight over it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Since there is no mention of Gold and Silver, would it be logical to think the soldiers took all the traditional "loot" during this attack, along with destroying the oil?
    If not, wouldnt it be nice to think all attacks could be carried out in such a spiritual way?

  3. It's "refusal to mix with other liquids…" You're right – oil's differentness, its being "other" not only points to the heart of what it is to holy (kadosh, meaning seperate, special, and different), but what it is to be, simply, Jewish. To be Jewish is to be different. Not better, mind you. Just different. But just as oil and water "don't mix," the two can, and do, coexist. Is there a better way to both recognize the Maccabee's radical struggle for religious freedom while at the same time acknowledging the equally important obligation to respect those who are also different – different from us.

  4. Well, I took the theme of oil a step healthier and included it in granola to give as gifts to family and friends. We need the oil to be ever young; maybe that's why anointing with it was so important. Hmmm. Sort of an early anti-aging treatment? Anyway, I wish everyone a bright and joyous holiday.

  5. Great comments all.
    I love the anonymous' idea that wouldn't life be grand if war was only fought spiritually without physical violence.

    Rabbi Berk's comment that religious freedom should be able to mix with tolerance is thought-provoking in light of Sweden's outlawing of new minarets. What happens when one group's tolerance comes face to face with the other group's fundamentalism and rejectionism?

    Rabbi Spears takes the theme of oil in another direction. Makes me wonder if another mitzvah of Chanukah should be healthy living and healthy eating?

    Looking forward to day 2's blog post. Coming up soonish.

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