The Miracle(s) of Chanukah
We all know that the reason we celebrate Chanukah is to commemorate and thank Hashem for all of the Nissim – miracles – that He performed for our ancestors upon saving them from the Greeks and their harsh decrees.
Firstly, for the miraculous and crushing defeat of the mighty Greek army at the hands of the Maccabees – a small army of religious Jews led by Yehuda HaMaccabee and his father Mattityahu. Secondly,for the miracle of the Menorah:
When the Maccabees returned victorious to the Beis Hamikdash, they found it completely defiled by the Greeks. After much searching, they managed to find a small jar of pure, untouched olive oil with the seal of the Kohen Hagadol still intact. This jar contained enough oil to last for only one day. However, as we know, it burned for eight straight days. Because of these miracles, the Sages established the holiday of Chanukah, in order to thank Hashem.
The Gemara in Shabbos (21b) famously asks “Mai Chanukah”? In commemoration of which of these miracles did the Sages institute Chanukah?
The Gemara answers, “For the miracle of the oil.” The fact that the oil should have only burned for one day, and instead burned for eight, was the reason why the Sages instituted the festival of Chanukah.
However, during Chanukah there is an additional prayer, called Al HaNissim, which is inserted into the Tefilla (prayer) recited in Grace after Meals as well as in the Shemona Esrei. In this prayer we thank Hashem for the miracles of Chanukah. Yet, in it, there is only mention of the miracle of the war, how Hashem “placed the mighty in the hands of the weak and the many in the hands of the few”.
Nowhere in this Al HaNissim prayer does it mention the miracle of the oil. This is quite peculiar because the Gemara (cited above) states that the holiday of Chanukah was instituted exclusively because of the miracle of the oil! How could this be? The Gemara and Al HaNissim seem to be at odds with each other!
It is well known that miracles take on different forms; as such, there are different categories of miracles. One type of miracle shows the greatness of God (Gevurot Hashem) – the strength of Hashem – and at the same time is a Yeshua LiYisrael – a salvation for the Jews. One such miracle was the splitting of the Red Sea, where Hashem saved the Jewish people from the wicked Egyptians in a public manner, by utterly decimating their army.
Another example is the miracle of the mighty Greeks’ defeat at the hands of the Maccabees. For miracles such as these, we are required to say Shira, a song of praise and thanksgiving to Hashem. We therefore say ‘Az Yashir’ every day in davening to thank Hashem for splitting the Red Sea and for saving our ancestors from the bloodthirsty Egyptians. Likewise, the Sages instituted the Al Hanissim prayer on Chanukah to thank Him for His salvation from the Greeks.
Another form of a ness is when Hashem reveals Himself to us through a miracle to show that He is pleased that we are doing His will properly. It also is a symbol of His relationship to us, so that we should draw even closer to Him by performing His Mitzvot – commandments.
Such was the miracle of the oil. Instead of just lighting the Menorah with any oil, the Maccabees searched until they found an untouched jar of pure oil. Only with this special jar did they light the Menorah. In return, to show how pleased He was with their diligence, Hashem performed an open miracle and made the oil last for eight days instead of one, in order that the Jews would realize their intimacy to God and draw even closer to Him.
Based upon this explanation, there really is no inconsistency. The Gemara in Shabbos asks: “To commemorate which miracle did the Sages establish the holiday of Chanukah?” The Gemara answered: “The miracle of the oil.” Because of the efforts of the Jews to ensure the purity of the oil, Hashem, in return, manifested his Divine pleasure through a miracle – the miracle of the oil.
To commemorate this, the Sages instituted the eight days of Chanukah to draw us ever closer to Hashem.
However, Al Hanissim is the Shira, the prayer of thanksgiving and praise to Hashem instituted for saving us from the Greeks; and we only say Shira for a miracle that publicly showed that through the might of Hashem, the Jewswere saved. That was only the ness of war, not the ness of the oil.
That is why we only mention that specific miracle in Al Hanissim.
In any case, we must thank Hashem for all the miracles and therefore we celebrate the eight days of Chanukah, l’hodot u’lhallel. It is apropos that the holiday of Chanukah generally falls out during the doldrums of winter and lights up the darkness. It behooves us all to glean from this enlightening holiday a small spark of “thanksgiving and gratitude”, and reflect about the miracles in our daily lives.
- (Based on the Shalmei Torah and the Kuntros Chanukah)
Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.
L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!