The Nine Nights Of Chanukah


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:10 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8
Havdalah: 5:13 p.m.

There’s a famous question posed by the Bais Yosef as to why we celebrate Chanukah for eight days and not seven, as the flask of oil the Maccabees found had enough to last one day, so the miracle was really only for the  seven days after that.

On the other hand, we can ask why Chanukah is not celebrated for nine days in the Diaspora, with an extra day added on, as it is for Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. After all, outside the land of Israel most festivals have an extra day due to the principle of Sefika Deyoma: Prior to the permanent fixing of the calendar, there was an element of uncertainty regarding the exact start of a Yom Tov (festival). The reason an additional day is added to those holidays is out of fear that if the adjacent-additional day was indeed the Yom Tov but was treated as a regular weekday, it would lead to many infractions. However in the case of Chanukah, there are no work restrictions so there is no need for an extra day of precaution. As Chanukah is not biblically but rabbinically ordained, we are not stringent.

Additionally, the Minchas Chinuch contends that we we celebrate Chanukah for eight days rather than nine days because with a fixed calendar there can be certainty, even in the Diaspora, regarding the 25th of Kislev, the first night of Chanukah.

Prior to the fixed calendar, each month was declared after eyewitnesses testified that the had seen the new moon. Messengers were then sent from Jerusalem to distant communities, to let them know that a new moon was declared, thereby establishing the date for the festivals. According to the Minchas Chinuch, messengers were also sent regarding Chanukah. In places that were too far for the messengers to reach in the proper time, Chanukah was indeed celebrated for nine days. With a fixed calendar precluding the need for messengers or witnesses, we can celebrate eight days. However, he adds, “When the Temple is rebuilt, may if be swiftly in our time, and we shall again determine the beginning of the month according to eyewitnesses, then the far flung communities will certainly again celebrate nine days of Chanukah.”

Bais Hillel (the school of Hillel) ruled that each night we add a candle, starting with one candle on the first night until on the eighth night we are lighting eight candles; each time we light the candles it has to be clear that we are following the order set by Bais Hillel. Bais Shammai believed that one has to light eight candles on the first night, each day decreasing the number so that on the last night only one candle is lit. If there were nine nights, on the fifth night we wouldn’t be able to differentiate between the positions of Bais Hillel and Beis Shammai, as there are five candles lit no matter what your starting point is.

In the 20th century, Rabbi Reuven Margolios, as quoted in Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin’s encyclopedic “Festivals in Halachah,” takes issue with the idea of ever again being reliant on messengers, even after the Temple is rebuilt. After all, with modern technology able to instantly transmit information around the world, there won’t be a need for the extra second day of Yom Tov. Rabbi Margolios lived before the internet age but he cited the radio “whose voice is borne from one end of the world to the other; and who knows what each new day can beget, in an era in which the gates of wisdom are opened.” Rabbi Zevin challenges that conclusion by clearly stating that the addition of extra days in the diaspora has more to it than mere difficulties in communications.

An old Yiddish expression goes, “for such a little bit of oil, such a big festival.” Whether it’s celebrated eight or nine days, the light of Chanukah lives on beyond the holiday. The Jewish spirit can never be dimmed or extinguished. As Rabbi Joe Bobker puts it, “The greatest miracle is … not that one day’s oil burnt for eight days, but rather that the light of those eight days is still burning today.”

The light of Chanukah is a fire that can never be extinguished. Chanukah never ends. Israel never dies. 

Rabbi Zev Brenner, president and CEO of Talkline Communications Network, is host of its flagship program “Talkline with Zev Brenner,” broadcast nightly on WSNR 620 AM at 8 PM; midnight Saturday nights on WMCA 570 AM; and Sunday nights at midnight on WNBC Digital Ch. 4.2.