Hipster Hanukkah Myth Busting

Oil-Burning Hamsa Hanukkiyah

Oil-Burning Hamsa Hanukkiyah

Continuing on the Hanukkah theme, for the last year or two I’ve wanted to try using oil instead of candles for Hanukkah. This year, Mrs. Secular Jew bought me an oil-burning hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah) so I could try it out. Think of it as a kind of “hipster” Hanukkah thing–let’s use a purportedly old-style hanukkiyah and some olive oil and get all hipster-ironic-“I was doing this before it was cool”!

But because I wanted to actually do this during Hanukkah and had never used oil before, I decided to do a “dry” run. (Get it? Because oil isn’t dry! Well, I thought it was funny.)

My thoughts? They must have used a TON of olive oil to keep the menorah lit in the Second Temple. Or maybe not…

Does Size Matter?

It’s hard to get a good sense of scale for the size of the oil holders on this. They’re not big, because the whole thing isn’t all that big. (It seemed so much larger on the product page from whence the hanukkiyah was purchased.) For some scale:

Hannukiyah next to honey bear

Hannukiyah next to honey bear

As you can see, neither the hanukkiyah nor its oil holders are especially large. Each of the individual oil holders is considerably smaller in volume than 1/4 teaspoon; perhaps they are about half that size. The oil holder at the top, the shamash (which is used to help light the other wicks), is a bit larger.

Now, having never done this before, the dress rehearsal was a good idea. So for the wicks: I bought some candle wicks with wick clips attached, pulled out the wicks, stripped some of the wax off them, trimmed the wicks to get them short enough to not light the kitchen on fire, and put the trimmed the wicks in the clips. The clips are t-shaped, so it took some experimenting to make sure I had the clip oriented the right way to allow the wick to draw oil up while not causing the flame to burn out when it approached the clip. That took some doing, but I got it worked out well enough.

Oil holder on hanukkiyah next to 1/4 tsp. from a measuring set.

The oil holder next to a 1/4 tsp.

Light ‘Em Up!

Then, I put oil in the hanukkiyah and put the wick in and left it to soak up some oil. Then I lit it up. Fifteen minutes later, the flame was out.

And so, when I looked underneath, was the oil!

The oil holder was almost completely dry; barely the tiniest glimmer of shiny olive oil remained. On the one hand, I was relieved because I was a little worried the wick would burn out before the oil was gone. On the other hand, halakhically the requirement is, if one lights at sundown, the oil should burn for half an hour.

Now, I’m not fretting about the halakhah bit. (You did see the “secular Jew” part up there by the title, right?) But it would be nice to be able to see things burn longer in the hanukkiyah because, you know, pretty.

Where Are Jamie and Adam when You Need Them?

All of this got me thinking, though. If I used about 1/8 tsp. of oil and it got me about 15 minutes (maybe less–I was potchky-ing around and doing other things) of light, I wondered: 1) whether I doing something that caused more oil to burn than should have, and if so, what output should I expect if I do it right?; and 2) is there something we can learn from this about how much oil one would go through to keep the menorah lit in the Temple–a kind of quasi-scientific version of asking the ancient rabbis, “Really, you didn’t have enough oil for eight days, like that’s so hard to acquire!?”

(Yes, yes, the whole oil thing is made up. Go with it here–you’re ruining the whole conceit of the blog post!)

To answer the first question, I did what anyone would do in my position: I used Google.

One blogger made an olive oil lamp in a jar and reported getting about 5 hours of light from 1/8 cup (2 oz.) of oil. There are 48 teaspoons in a cup; 1/8 of a cup is 6 teaspoons. So that’s 1.2 tsp of oil per hour. I have oil holders that hold about 1/8 tsp, so if I used the same wick, conditions, etc., as the blogger I found, I should have gotten less than 1/4 hour of light. I got about that with less oil than the math suggests I would have needed, so I’m guessing the small size of the wick I used plus the prep work I did on the wick got me pretty decent results.

But these were not large wicks–and they certainly were not oil-burning wicks. They were the “medium” wicks you get in the candle-making section at your local big-box craft store, with the additional step taken of stripping the wax off them. Perhaps the residual wax made a small difference, but I don’t really think so–the flame melted the wax pretty quickly.

So, here’s what I’m getting at. Let’s say you need to keep the menorah burning twenty-four hours each day. You’ve got seven receptacles (six branches plus the seventh one–basing this on the relief on the Arch of Titus). With a modern manufactured, oil-specific wick, you get about 5 hours from 1/8 cup of oil, so you’d use slightly more than 1/2 cup of oil per day per light on the menorah. Seven of those gets you to 3.5 cups of olive oil per day, more or less.

So the rabbis of the Talmud would have had you believe that 1) in ALL OF JERUSALEM and the surrounding areas to which the Maccabees had access, there were only a few cups of olive oil not somehow tainted by the Seleucids and their sympathizers (yes, yes, Kohen Gadol’s seal; whatever, see next) and 2) there was NO WAY in which sufficient oil could be readily obtained to get over the next seven days.

What’s that you say? Oh, KOSHER oil. You’re really going to pitch the whole, “everyone kept the halakhah as in the Talmudic period, even in 164 BCE” thing? Go away with that narishkeit. And given the prevalence of olives and olive oil at the time, you aren’t really going to argue that there no olives around, right?

You see where I’m going with this. The notion that you couldn’t get enough oil and had to wait eight days? Hokum.

Myth busted.

Myth: Busted image, with Jamie and Adam from the MythBusters TV program represented as bust statutes.

Myth: Busted


4 thoughts on “Hipster Hanukkah Myth Busting

  1. The rabbi in my Temple growing up told us the oil they would have used back then would probably have been fish oil. I wonder if it has more BTUs than olive oil. (And for that matter, how the Temple must have smelled…)

    • I’m not sure why it would be fish oil–I’ve never heard that before, but there’s lots I don’t know. Though they discuss other oils (including fish oil), the rabbinic texts are pretty insistent about olive oil. So if only for the myth-busting, olive oil was the way to go. You’d probably have to use more fish oil for the same amount of light–it apparently burns dirtier (olive oil burns very clean, with hardly any smoke). And man, the smell…

  2. Pingback: Humanistic Blessing for Hanukkah | A secular Jew in Indianapolis

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