The History Behind the Flask

It was a discovery that shaped history: entering the tragically profaned Beis Hamikdash, the Chashmonaim were yet able to find a flask of pure oil, untouched by the impure Greek marauders.

The Birkas Shmuel, Harav Aharon Shmuel Koidenover, zt”l, writes that this flask far predated the Kohen Gadol who had placed his seal on it.

In the beginning of Parashas Vayeitzei we learn that when Yaakov Avinu woke up and discovered that the stones upon which had rested his head had fused to become one, he poured oil on the stone and erected it as a matzeivah, promising that upon his safe return home this would become the house of Hashem. Where did he find oil? In a flask that had miraculously appeared on the scene.

Yaakov Avinu sensed that this was a special flask, and he took it with him. It was for this flask he endangered himself, going back across the river to retrieve it and subsequently fighting the angel of Esav through that night (Parashas Vayishlach).

Later, it was with this flask that Moshe Rabbeinu anointed the vessels of the Mishkan. Hundreds of years later still, it was with the oil in this flask that the Jewish kings were anointed.

When Eliyahu Hanavi was told by Hashem to go to Tzorfas, where a widow would sustain him, this flask reappeared; as Eliyahu promised her, the flask miraculously produced enough oil to support Eliyhau, his hostess and her household for a year.

A generation later, the flask would be in the center of another famous story:

For years the righteous Ovadiah had sustained one hundred Neviim hiding out in two caves from the wrath of an evil tyrant. To save their lives by supplying them with their basic needs, he had been forced to borrow — with interest — from Yehoram the crown prince.

After Ovadiah passed away, Yehoram declared that he would to seize Ovadiah’s two orphans as slaves in lieu of payment. Desperate, their mother went to her late husband’s kever to pray for Divine mercy. From his grave Ovadiah instructed her to go to Elisha with the little oil that she had left, and through Elisha the Ribbono Shel Olam caused the oil to keep flowing miraculously on and on. Once again this flask was a conduit of great blessing. Not only was the widow able to repay her debts, but she had enough to live on for the rest of her life.

It was this flask that the Chashmonaim found, and that produced oil for eight days.

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We are left with many questions.

How could Eliyahu, his hostess and the widow of Ovadiah make use of shemen hamish’chah for parnassah when the Torah states that whoever uses it for anything but the stated purpose will be punished with kares?

How could the Chashmonaim find the flask when the Gemara states (Krisos 5b) that the shemen hamish’chah was concealed with the Aron after the first churban, and was not available at all in the era of the second Beis Hamikdash?

Finally, the Torah states that the shemen hamish’chah was mixed with besamim (spices), while the oil used for lighting the menorah had to be pure. So what was in that miraculously unconcealed flask?

The Chida explains though the oil in the flask was shemen hamish’chah, which is oil mixed with besamim, the oil that came out of the flask was pure and unmixed.

Therefore, neither Eliyahu, the widow or the wife of Ovadiah derived any benefit from the actual shemen hamish’chah, which remains whole and concealed.

This is one answer to the famous question eternally associated with the Beis Yosef: why do we celebrate Chanukah for eight days? After all, if there was enough oil in the flask to last one day, only seven days’ light can be called a miracle. Well, the very fact that pure oil emerged from this flask of blended shemen hamish’chah was itself a miracle!

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It might appear that the episode of finding the oil and the victories granted to the Chashmonaim are two separate, albeit related, miracles.

The Maharal says otherwise. Hashem gave us the miracle of the oil in order that we should not delude ourselves that the victories on the battlefield were due to the military exploits or heroism of the Chashmonaim. Since the miracle of the oil had no “natural” explanation, it shed light on the other miracle of the time — victory over the Yevanim.

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The Yismach Yisrael of Alexander and other sefarim, also seeking to answer the kushya of the Beis Yosef, said that we celebrate Chanukah for eight days to show that the very fact that oil burns is itself a miracle!

We are so accustomed to what is commonly called “nature” (teva) that we need to be reminded that everything that happens in the world is akin to a miracle, and the reason oil burns is solely because Hashem wishes it to.

This is the eternal lesson of a miraculous flask that appeared and reappeared over the generations, to shed light on the fact that life itself is one of the greatest miracles.