The eight day festival of Hanukkah is something of an oddity. There are two other holidays that last this long: Passover and Sukkot. They are very different: Sukkot and Pesach are both biblical festivals given in the Torah, by God. They include all the restrictions associated with religious observance, so we don’t drive or use electricity, and significant day are spent in prayer.
Hanukkah is different. It lasts eight days, but was not given in the Torah. We function normally at work, school and home without any religious restrictions, and although there are small additions to our prayers (the hallel service in the mornings and an extra paragraph in the blessings after meals), we don’t spend large portions of the day in prescribed devotion.
So why is Hanukkah eight days?
There are three explanations:
1) The classic Hanukah story we learn as children climaxes with a tremendous miracle: after reclaiming the Temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees found a small jug of oil with which to light the golden menorah. It was only enough to last for one day, but amazingly, kept burning for the full eight days it took to squeeze and process new oil. However, this miracle isn’t actually recorded in any contemporary sources, and only appears in much later recollections of the story.
2) The Book of Maccabees records Judah instigating eight days of festivities to celebrate the rededication of the Temple after it was desecrated by the Greek army. After months of trial and hardship culminating in an unlikely victory and the recapturing of the Temple, it’s no surprise that the High Priest’s family designated an entire week to thanking God for their triumph and celebrating their unpredictable win.
3) A third explanation offered says that due to due the crucial wars in which the Jewish army was engaged, they missed the opportunity to celebrate Sukkot that year. Instead, they kept the eight day biblical festival in the Hebrew month of Kislev – the first chance they had to celebrate in the newly refurbished Temple.
Whichever of these explanations is the truest reason for our modern eight-day Festival of Lights, one thing remains true: Hanukkah certainly gives is plenty to celebrate!