Up until last year, I had believed that the holiday was about some oil lasting eight times as long as it was supposed to last. When one ponders that, it seems silly. However, the problem is that the Sages weren't stupid! How do we answer this, then?
Last year, our yeshiva was blessed, for a few months, with the presence of the talmid hakham and humble Rabbi Dr. Zvi A. Yehuda. I got my hands on a little four-page article (I don't know where or if it was published.) entitled "What is the Miracle of Hanukkah? The Sybolism of the Jar of Oil Legend". Therein, he brilliantly and beautifully explains the language of נס (commonly translated as miracle, but that's not the precise translation). He says (on p. 3) that
Judaism does not celebrate an event just because it appears to be a "miracle" of the jar of oil, is utterly erroneous and blatantly blasphemous - distorting the very essence of Judaism.
... the term nes in rabbinic parlance does not exactly mean miracle. More precisely, in the context of sacred liturgy and worship, "nes" refers to an extraordinary event, entailing of a profound redemptive quality, causing deliverance of people from oppression and death to freedom and life.
Taken literally, the jar of oil episode does not qualify as "nes" (miracle) in its profound sense. What was its redemptive purpose or outcome? We applaud divine intervention when it saves human lives, but not when it just comes to provide more light in the Temple. ...
The jar of oil fable is indeed a captivating aggada, suggestive of innumerous and fascinating symbolisms which transcend its plain literal surface. It must not be approached lightly or crudely, but rather earnestly and respectfully. This aggada does not aim to replace the traditional, historical meaning of Hanukkah so eloquently expressed in liturgy.
He goes on, but I've shown here the highlights of his paper. It tremendously altered my perception of Hanukkah forever, and in a beautiful way, too!
I would have left things at that, were it not for a presentation by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz on Thursday 15 December, a few weeks ago.
Before I go into his <i>shiur (lecture), I think it's important now to point out a problem with Rabbi Dr. Yehuda's article. The wording of the locus classicus (found on bShab 21b) is "בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים " - "They checked and they only found one jar of oil that had the high priest's seal on it, except to light it for only one day. A nes was made with it and they lit from it eight days." The problem is that the language of nes is clearly located within the context of the jar of oil(!).
Now I can return to Rabbi Katz' understanding.
He went through certain of the various מחלוקות (disagreements) throughout the Hanukkah pericope to show us some parameters of the philosphical dialectic occurring. He went through them, without anything particularly new. But then, he got to the conclusion and had a phat hiddush (novellum) to show to us.
The main source, from bShab 21b, goes as follows:
תנו רבנן בכ"ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
While I'm not bothering to translate this passage, it's rather unimportant to the present point I am making. What is important is that the language used for the first half of this beraisa is in Aramaic, and not middle Hebrew! How could this be? At first, I thought maybe there was an editorial interpolation threaded into this Tannaitic text, but then realized that may happen sometimes, but not when it's part of the main body of the text!
Rabbi Katz revealed to us that this is a quote from מגילת תענית (Megillat Ta'anit), an early Tannaitic work, where there were Aramaic headings for certain days of the year, and a later person came and described those days in Hebrew in the work. (Okay, that's a start, but it'll now get exciting...)
Although the holiday of Hanukkah was instituted due to the military victories, re-establishing of Jewish political autonomy, and re-dedication of the Temple, the Rabbis were concerned about seeming too strong to the Romans, who would have suspected them of possibly rising up against them. Such is it that the military victories were on the DL and the "religious" sense was imported to this holiday in the form of the oil in order to contribute to a sense of benign-ness of this holiday.
Although the latter explanation, provided by Rabbi Katz is informative to our understanding of the text, I still appreciate Rabbi Dr. Yehuda's approach to the holiday, as well.