After the military victory, the miracle of Chanukah was finding a small vessel of pure olive oil in the defiled sanctuary. In spite of its small size, the oil lasted a full eight days lighting the Temple Menorah – hence the eight days of Chanukah (Shabbos 21b).
As we will see below, the specific involvement of olive oil in the miracle brings some halachic authorities to suggest a preference for olive oil in lighting the Chanukah menorah. In the present article we will discuss this preference, among other laws and principles pertaining to the lighting of the Chanukah candles.
What are the reasons for the preference of olive oil? Is it permitted to light with wax candles, and can this be done on a lechatchilah level? Must the olive oil be edible? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Preference of Olive Oil: A Clear Light
Many authorities, from early authorities such as the Roke’ach (226) to later authorities including the Mishnah Berurah (673:4) and the Aruch HaShulchan (673:1, 6), note the preference for olive oil over alternatives for lighting the Chanukah Menorah. The basic ruling of this preference is given by the Rema (673:1).
Two reasons are given for the preference for olive oil.
The reason explicit in the Gemara (Shabbos 23a), citing a statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, is that olive oil produces a clear light, and is therefore preferable to other oils. Although the statement refers to candle lighting in general (and can be interpreted as a specific reference to Shabbos candles; see Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 264), Tosafos notes that the principle applies to Chanukah candles. This is cited by the Beis Yosef (673) in the name of the above Roke’ach.
This appears to be the rationale behind the ruling of the Rema, and the principle is noted by many authorities (see Levush 2; Ben Ish Chai, Vayesihev 1:12, Chai Adam 154:8, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 139:4 – among others). Indeed, the Gra and the Peri Chadash note that the source of the ruling is the Gemara in Shabbos.
Parallel with the Miracle
One of the sources mentioned by the Rema (in brackets – though it is possible that the sources were added by others) is the Kol Bo (Chanukah 44). The Kol Bo explains that “some light with wax candles… but the preferred method of lighting is with olive oil, since the miracle took place with olive oil.”
This statement clearly implies that even if the light produced by wax candles is no less clear than that produced by olive oil, there remains a preference for olive oil, since the original miracle took place with this type of oil.
This concept emerges from the wording of the Rema himself. The Shulchan Aruch (673:1) rules (based on the Gemara in Shabbos) that all oils are acceptable in lighting the Chanukah candles. The Rema adds: “However, it is preferable to use olive oil, and if one does not have olive oil one should use oils whose light is pure and clear; and in these places, the custom is to use wax candles, since their light is as clear as that of oil.”
The statement indicates that there are two separate advantages of olive oil. One advantage is the clarity of its light. However, this advantage is had in the use of wax, as well. Olive oil has the additional advantage of having been the fuel with which the Chanukah miracle took place. In his Darchei Moshe (673), the Rema likewise implies these two separate advantages of olive oil.
Note that the base halachah is that all oils are kosher for Chanukah candles. One fulfills the mitzvah of Chanukah lights even if the candle goes out soon after lighting so that even lower quality oils are valid, provided the flame could last for half an hour (see Chai Adam 154:8, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 139:4. Mishnah Berurah 673:1; Halichos Shlomo 2:15:1 footnote 1).
Lighting Wax Candles
According to the Meiri (Shabbos 21), the abovementioned statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi noting the preference for olive oil includes two distinct points. The first point is general preference of oil to wax: One should prefer oil over wax candles because the Chanukah miracle took place with oil. The second point is that among oils, one should prefer olive oil, since its light is the clearest.
According to this interpretation, the idea of recalling the original miracle is implemented by any oil, and not necessarily the specific use of olive oil. This is also implied by the wording of the Mishnah Berurah (4), who writes that there is a mitzvah in using oil over wax because the miracle took place with oil, without mentioning olive oil specifically.
Some authorities take this concept a step further, and write that the ruling (of the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch) whereby all oils are acceptable for Chanukah lights is limited to oils, and means to exclude wax candles. Because the Chanukah miracle took place with oil, it follows that all oils qualify for the Chanukah Menorah, but wax candles do not (see Shaar HaTzion 4).
The Maharal (Ner Mitzvah p. 24) writes that it is forbidden to use a wax candle for Chanukah candles (and by implication, even for Shabbos candles) because only an oil candle, where the oil is contained by a vessel into which the wick is inserted, is considered a “ner.” A wax candle, which has no vessel (and is rather a lump of wax wrapped round a wick) is not called a “ner,” and therefore cannot function as a ner Chanukah.
However, this is certainly a minority opinion, and the vast majority of authorities, as noted by the above ruling of the Rema, maintain that in the absence of olive oil it is perfectly acceptable to use wax candles. The Eliyah Rabba (2) notes that the prevalent custom (in his times) was to light with wax candles, and this continues to be common in many circles.
Lighting with wax candles is therefore an acceptable but not the most preferred method (see also Birchei Yosef 673:4, Mishnah Berurah 4, Aruch Hashulchan 6). Those who light with wax candles should prefer long candles, since these are more impressive and respectable (Magen Avraham 672:3; Chayei Adam 154:21; Mishnah Berurah 672:6; the Chayei Adam writes that wax candles are only permitted where oil is not available). The Aruch HaShulchan (1) thus notes that somebody away from home, presumably under circumstances where it is more difficult to light with olive oil, may light wax candles.
There is a discussion among authorities if the preference for olive oil applies even for children (under bar-mitzvah). The general consensus in this matter is that children can be given wax candles for lighting even on a lechatchilah level (see Shut Shevet HaKehasi 6:246:1; Teshuvos Vehanhagos 3:219:10, Doleh U’mashkeh p. 238).
Kovetz Mevakshei Torah on Chanukah cites an interesting stringency in the name of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, who ruled that one should preferably use edible olive oil (oil sold for human consumption), since this is most similar to the oil used in the Temple Menorah. A similar idea was stated by Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch shlita, who writes that there is a preference for using extra virgin olive oil, which most resembles the oil used for the Temple Menorah.
However, as noted above, some authorities refer to the miracle of Chanukah as giving preference to oil over wax, without mentioning olive oil at all. According to these authorities the preference for olive oil is related only to the clarity of its light, whereas reference to the original miracle in the preference for oil, and not to olive oil. Even according to those authorities (such as the Chayei Adam 154:8) that mention olive oil in the context of the original miracle, we do not find a general preference of coming as close as possible to the original oil used by the Temple, and it seems sufficient to use any form of olive oil, as Poskim mention.
Moreover, it is clear that all forms of marketed olive oil today are unfit for the Temple service (see Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Mizbe’ach 7:10), so that the idea of “coming closer” to the form of oil used in the Temple – beyond the actual category of olive oil is a bit difficult. For this reason, a number of authorities (including Rabbi Shmuel Wosner and Rabbi Asher Weiss, shlita) have ruled that one does not need to go beyond the common custom of using regular olive oil (even the kind sold for lighting purposes) for the Chanukah candles.
Using Shmittah Oil
Some authorities have written that one should refrain from using Shmittah oil – oil produced from olives grown in the Shmittah year that possess the sanctity of Shmittah – for Chanukah lighting. The reason for this is that produce from the Shmittah year is designated for eating and other benefits, and one is not permitted to benefit from the Chanukah lights (see Pesachim 52b; Shut Shevet HaLevi Vol. 1, no. 184).
However, other authorities are lenient on this matter, explaining that the lighting of the Chanukah candles is not categorized as destructive “burning” in this case, since there is a concrete benefit – of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah – from the light of the candles.
Just as it is permitted to use Shmittah fruit to publicize one’s private business, so too it is permitted to use Shmittah olives for purposes of publicizing the Chanukah miracle (see Shut Minchas Shlomo, Vol. 1, no. 42; Vol. 3no. 122).
Another Chanukah custom relating to oil is the preparation and consumption of doughnuts and latkes. This, too, commemorates the miracle that happened with oil, since these items are traditionally prepared with oil (see Minhag Yisroel Torah 670, Nitei Gavriel 51:12, footnote 13).
In this matter – perhaps thankfully – there is no special custom of using olive oil.
Wishing all a joyous and illuminating Chanukah festival.