And You command the Children of Israel...
Said R. Chanina the Segan (Kohen-in-Charge) of Kohanim: I was serving in the Beis Hamikdash and a miracle took place with the Menorah. When they lit it from Rosh Hashana it did not become extinguished until the next year. Once olives did not produce oil. The Kohanim began to cry and R. Chanina Segan of Kohanim said: "I was in the Beis Hamikdash and found Menorah burning more than what it was burning all the days of the year (Tanchuma, Tetsavah, 3)".
From standpoint of Halacha this midrash is quite difficult for it appears to state that the Menorah in the Temple was lit only once a year. This contradicts the account in Bavli (Shabbos 22b-23a) that all lamps were cleaned every day and if any candle was still burning, it was extinguished, cleaned and relit with new oil. In addition, how is the daily mitsva of lighting the menorah fulfilled, if it is lit but once a year?
Several possible answers suggest themselves. Ultimately, one faces a method question of when to allegorize difficult midrashim, such as this one. One must resist the temptation to jump to derush for by resorting to homiletics too quickly it is easy to overlook much simpler and better answers. That not only shortchanges the learner and the passage but opens one to charges of insufficient respect for sacred texts and can even expose one to ridicule.
1. This midrash disagrees with the Bavli and represents an alternative Tannaitic opinion. In other words, it holds an opinion that there is no daily mitsva to light the menorah lamps and that some lamps, at the very least the western one, burned for a prolonged periods of time without refilling the oil or relighting. There are other Midrashic passages that support this supposition, such as this one.
Before Hashem forever. You may think that they burn forever? It teaches, "from evening to morning". You may think that the lamps burn forever- It teaches, "from evening to morning". If "from evening till morning, you may think that one should extinguish them (if they are still burning in the morning)? It teaches: "there should burn seven lamps - from morning to evening. Before Hashem always - this is the western light, that the western light burned would burn so that the other lights were lit from it (Sifri beginning of B'Ha'laoscha).
This is understood by the commentary Zeis Ra'anan as saying that there exists a prohibition to extinguish lamps as long as they are still burning. This implies that there is no mitzvah of daily lighting for as long as a lamp is still burning, it must be allowed to continue to burn. These midrashim also appear to say that the western lamp burned forever, both of these points in contradiction to the Bavli. The difficulty with these suggestion is that it postulates a "new" disagreement among Tannaim that was not noted or commented on by any Rishon, to my knowledge.
2. Torah Shelema # 93, Tetsave cites two suggestions from a manuscript by R. Yudel Hatsarfati
1. Only the Western lamp never went out.
2. They fulfilled the mitsva of daily lighting by daily exchanging the wick.
In the same vein, Mikraei Kodesh (Chanuka 7 and 8) by R. Tsvi Pesach Frank attempts to resolve these problems through bringing to bear Talmudic brilliance upon the problem. It tells that R. Chaim Soloveitchik asked of this midrash to the Gerer Rebbe: "How did they fulfill the daily mitsva of lighting the menorah"? The Gerer Rebbe answered: "They added a drop of oil every day, as the Bavli states in Betsah 22 - "One who adds oil to a lamp on Shabbos is culpable". This suggestions suffers from a number of logical and textual difficulties which R. Frank's discusses in length.
3. Certainly, the gates of interpretation are not locked. One may understand R. Chanina's statement as a parable that contains a moral lesson, not a literal description of what took place in the Temple. It is not uncommon for aggadic statements to take the form of personal testimony and still be a parable - witness the fantastic stories of Rabbah Bar Channa (Bava Basra 73a -75), that open with "One time I was.... Perhaps, the teaching contained within our midrash uses the Chinuch (lighting) of Menorah as a symbol of Chinuch (education) of a child, in the spirit, "everything follows the foundation, whether in regard to good or to evil (Midrash Shmuel 3, 24)."
We often tend to think that it is the later years, adolescence and young manhood, that are formative. It is in these years after all, that a man acquires most of his knowledge and approach to life and forms his individual personality and character. "It is, however, an error, to think so", says R. Chanina. On the contrary, it is that initial lighting, the warmth and the fire with which love of Torah and Judaism was lit - the education in early childhood, that lasts forever. There occur in life times and periods when the olives do not produce oil, when impure fuels promise a brighter and happier light. At such times, says R. Chanina, it is that that initial fire that will sustain you.
Not infrequently the keepers of the flame are reduced to tears and despair, when the olives fail to produce pure oil. "Fear not", says R. Chanina, to the keepers of the flame, " do not weep for the initial lighting is the one that determines. It will continue to keep burning our inner light, even when the oil runs out."
Is R. Chanina's statement a parable rather than a straightforward description of what took place in the Temple? It is hard for us to know; presumably the Tannaim and Amoraim recognized conventions of their time and place and would have had no difficulty in knowing how to approach statements such as these. Whenever possible literal explanations should be sought. Nevertheless, homiletic interpretation should not be easily abandoned when we are faced with a Midrashic passage that directly contradicts factual statements found in the Talmud - for that may truly be its intent.
1 Other variants have "began to extinguish", in other words, they started to put out the menorah lamps as they would do every Rosh Hashana in order to relight it again.
2 Our Sifri appears to have a truncated version of this beraisa, which is, however, brought whole in Raqmban and Rashbo, see Netsiv's commentary to Sifri.
3 Quoted by Mikraei Kodesh, see later. Unfortunately I had not been able to find where this commentary says this.
4 See Meiri and Ritva to Shabbos 22b and R. Gershom to Menachos 86b for a discussion whether lamps must be extinguished and re-lit daily.
5 One distinction from the Sabbath laws that he does not present (although he does discuss a similar objection) is that on Sabbath adding oil prolongs or improves the process of burning while in the case of the Menorah in which the oil burns miraculously anyway, the additional oil does not add anything to the process of burning.
6 See Tosafos Chagiga 15a for a story how Acher's early education lead to his embracing heresy later in life.