What Chanucah says about saving energy

Rabbi Natan Levy wonders what message Friday’s festival has for world leaders grappling with climate change.


By Rabbi Natan Levy, December 9, 2009
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With the eight days of Chanucah and the Copenhagen climate conference both concluding within a day, the Jewish media may soon be full of uplifting parallels between those Maccabean preservers of oil, and our own conservation needs. It is a nice analogy: switch the Maccabees’ fuel resource, olive oil, with our own oil, gas and coal, and the miracle of the Chanucah lights becomes the ideal narrative of the Copenhagen delegates — minimal amounts of carbon-emitting fuels, maximal progress and globalised development. Judah Maccabee and UK Climate Secretary Ed Miliband share a common goal-how to use the smallest amount of oil without turning off the lights.

Yet, the parallel ends here. Global leaders have come to Copenhagen with the general understanding that if we continue to emit carbon at the present rate, our planet will be deeply harmed. They are conserving now with an eye on tomorrow.

But he story of Chanucah is a tale of anti-conservation. The Maccabees realise that they will need eight days of oil and their resources are limited to one precious jar, yet they go ahead and burn the lot, requiring a divine miracle to bail them out.

Having just bought my organic olive oil for the eight-day celebration, I have the uneasy feeling that all is not green in our winter holiday. If we really followed the Maccabees’ lead, we would use up our limited resources first and ask our conservation questions second. Does Chanucah imply that we should drive with abandon and then rely on God to provide a grand miracle in which all the petrol lasts eight times longer than expected? Although I doubt that there are religious folk out there driving with bumper stickers that read “a great miracle will happen here”, faith in a miraculous ecological fix has permeated quite deeply into religious society.

The miracle of chanucah was the outcome of careful rationing

A history book used in American Christian secondary schools reads that the Christian “knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God’s earth, while many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate everyone.”

Chanucah has become a battleground for Jewish attitudes towards a world of limited resources. Two years ago the Green Chanuciah Campaign urged world Jewry to light one less candle on the eighth day of Chanucah, and thus save 15 grams of carbon. Liad Ortor, the campaign co-founder, mentioned explicitly that the problem with Chanucah is the reliance on the supernatural. He called for Jews around the world to “save the last candle and save the planet, so we won’t need another miracle”. But the idea was given short shrift by Nissim Ze’ev, an MK with the Orthodox Shas party, who declared: “This is so trivial, so anti-Jewish and so anti-religious that even the worst antisemites couldn’t think of it,” .

Yet perhaps there is a more sustainable dimension to the miracle of the oil. Chanucah commemorates the victory of a rebel army lead by the Hasmonean priestly family against the controlling power of the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV and the Jewish Hellenists around 160 BCE. The culmination of this victory resulted in a rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, which the Hellenist had defiled to such an extent that only one jar of pure olive oil could be found to light the Temple Menorah, and one able to provide only a single night of light, not eight. However, a miracle occurs, and the oil burns for the full eight days.

So why refer to all eight days of Chanucah as miraculous? The first evening of light is simply what one would expect and thus no miracle at all! Also, it takes less than a day to pick and press a large amount of olive oil, and Jerusalem is the perfect climate for olive trees, as the Har Hazitim (Mount of Olives) attests to this day.

Why then should it take eight whole days to make new oil?

Rabbi Joseph Caro, in his monumental work the Bet Yosef, suggests that the Maccabees needed eight days for the new oil because everyone had been involved in the rebellion and thus in contact with the deaths on the battlefield. As death, in the Torah worldview, imparts impurity, everyone was impure and so unable to make pure oil for the menorah. It takes seven days to revert to a pure state, plus one day to make new olive oil, adding up to an eight-day wait time.

And what is so miraculous about day one? One beautiful and practical answer is that the Maccabees did not pour all of the oil into the menorah on the first night: instead they rationed out the oil, a little bit for each of the eight nights until the new batch could be made. Thus the miracle of the eight nights, including the first, was that a small drop of well-rationed oil lasted until the morning.

The miracle of Chanucah was the outcome of careful strategising and rationing with a practical eye on the future. It came to augment, not to spare the need for, the human endeavour. Chanucah is the celebration of eight days where we did not burn all our oil in one go, where we learned to live within our means. A celebration of the sustainable. And God’s response is to take the small sustainable gesture and expand it until we notice just how important, how truly miraculous it is, to consider tomorrow’s oil today.

Rabbi Natan Levy is head of the London School of Jewish Studies’ social responsibility unit

    Last updated: 3:51pm, December 9 2009