Chanukah

For the week ending 9 December 2017 / 21 Kislev 5778

The Miracle(s) of Chanuka

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

We all know that the reason we celebrate Chanuka is to commemorate and thank G-d 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 Mattisyahu. Secondly, for the miracle of the Menorah:

When the Maccabees returned victorious to the Beit 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 Chanuka, in order to thank G-d.

The Gemara in Shabbat (21b) asks “Mai Chanuka”? In commemoration of which of these miracles did the Sages institute Chanuka?

The Gemara answers, “For the miracle of the oil.” The fact that the oil should have burned for only one day, and instead burned for eight, was the reason why the Sages instituted the festival of Chanuka.

However, during Chanuka there is an additional prayer, called Al HaNissim, which is inserted into the tefilla (prayer) that is recited in the Grace after Meals as well as in the Shemoneh Esrei. In this prayer we thank G-d for the miracles of Chanuka. Yet, in Al HaNissim there is only mention of the miracle of the war, how G-d “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 aforementioned Gemara states that the holiday of Chanuka 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!

Nonetheless, drawing from concepts taken from the Shalmei Torah and the Kuntros Chanuka, we can attempt to suggest an answer for these seemingly contradictory passages.

It is well known that miracles take on different forms, resulting in different categories of miracles. One type of miracle shows the greatness of G-d (“gevurot Hashem”) — the strength of G-d — and at the same time is a yeshua l’Yisrael — a salvation for the Jews. One such miracle was the splitting of the Red Sea, where G-d 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 G-d. We therefore say “Az Yashir” every day in our morning prayers to thank G-d for splitting the Red Sea and for saving our ancestors from the bloodthirsty Egyptians. Likewise, the Sages instituted the Al Hanissim prayer on Chanuka to thank Him for saving us from the Greeks.

Another form of a miracle is when G-d 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, G-d 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 G-d and draw even closer to Him.

Based upon this explanation, there really is no inconsistency. The Gemara in Shabbat asks: “To commemorate which miracle did the Sages establish the holiday of Chanuka?” The Gemara answers: “The miracle of the oil.” Because of the efforts of the Jews to ensure the purity of the oil, G-d, in return, manifested His Divine pleasure through a miracle — the miracle of the oil.

To commemorate this, the Sages instituted the eight days of Chanuka to draw us ever closer to G-d.

However, Al Hanissim is the Shira, the prayer of thanksgiving and praise to G-d, instituted for saving us from the Greeks. And we only say Shira for a miracle that publicly showed that through the might of G-d were the Jews saved. That was only the miracleof war, not the miracle of the oil.

That is why we mention only that specific miracle in Al Hanissim.

In any case, we must thank G-d for all the miracles, and therefore we celebrate the eight days of Chanuka “l’hodot u’lhallel” — to give thanks and to give praise. It is appropriate that the holiday of Chanuka 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.

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