The reason many light with oil is twofold.
- Firstly, the Chanukah lights are kindled in order to remember the miracles which occurred at the time of the Maccabees. One of those miracles was that after retaking the Temple, following a battle with the Greeks, the Maccabees sought to rekindle the menorah. The problem was the they were only allowed to light ritually pure oil in the Temple menorah, and the Greeks intentionally defiled all the oil.
They could find only one flask of pure, undefiled oil sufficient for one day, and the nearest source of olives to squeeze new oil was four days away, an eight-day round trip. Miraculously, the oil stayed lit for all eight days until new oil was brought. This signified that God’s presence had returned to the Temple, a cause for great celebration.
In order to remember the oil through which the miracle occurred, the rabbis enacted that ideally one lights with oil.
- There’s a deeper reason as well. The number eight, or shemonah in Judaism, signifies transcending the physical world and entering the spiritual. The Kabbalists explain that seven represents the physical world: seven days of the week, seven musical chords, seven Noahide laws for the Gentiles. Through Torah we transcend this and enter the world of shemonah, eight.
From that lofty vantage point we are endowed with the ability to see right through the physical mask of the world and unwrap its hidden spiritual meaning.
Oil, in Hebrew, is shemen, which is the root of the word shemonah, or eight. The oil is hidden within the olive until we press it out, revealing a fire within. The shemen is the “olive’s shemonah,” transcending the surface and unlocking the illumination.
The Temple menorah was lit daily with olive oil, as that menorah represented the fire of the Torah which is the hidden illumination of the world. The Chanukah miracle of eight days/shemonah, revealed to us that even during the darkest times of decrees against the Torah, the fire of Torah shines brightly for those who seek it where it is hidden. This illumination enables us to transcend the darkness of the situation. This is much like the way a plane transcends the dark, gloomy weather, bursting through the clouds and encountering the bright sunshine on the other side.
Hence, the Rabbis enacted to light Chanukah lights at night, unlike most holiday mitzvot which are performed during the day, because the Chanukah candles represent the presence of the light despite the night – darkness of Diaspora and exile.
The minimum amount of oil needed to provide is for the lights to remain lit for a half-hour after nightfall.
Although perhaps not as ideal, one fulfills the mitzvah with candles as well, since they also provide light and remind us of the miracle when lit over the eight days.
A bright and happy Chanukah to you and all the readers.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried