Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Miketz 5762/ December 15, 2001

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


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Parashat Miketz 5762/ December 15, 2001

Hanukkah: On the Essence of Miracles

Zvi Praver
Department of Journalism and Communication Studies

Hanukkah, like other Jewish holidays, commemorates miracle wrought by G-d, in this case helping the Hasmoneans in their war to deliver the Jews from the Greeks. On other festivals the miracle that is celebrated is commemorated by a single event (such as the Seder, which celebrates the miracle of the exodus, including the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, etc.). Hanukkah, however, is unique in that for eight successive nights we kindle progressively more lights in celebration of a miracle which, it might seem, could have been noted by a single kindling of lights, in one manner or another. This article analyzes what essentially is meant by a "miracle" (Hebrew: nes) and investigates how miracles can serve either as catalysts or as retarding agents in the process of building a person's faith in the Creator. In light of our discussion, we will conclude with an analysis of the miracle of the cruse of oil on Hanukkah and the controversy that arose between the schools of Shammai and Hillel regarding the lighting of the candles.

The Hebrew word nes is defined in the Even Shoshan dictionary as follows: 1) a banner, standard or identifying sign of a unit; 2) a miraculous event, something supernatural; 3) an island, dry land surrounded by sea (from Greek nesos).

All these definitions can be seen as fitting the concept of nes in the sense of a change wrought by G-d in the natural order of the universe. Such a nes is a miraculous event; it marks the uniqueness of our people and its G-d, like a banner born on high; and it sets us apart and marks us as special, like an island in the midst of the "sea" of the routine order of the universe.

As we shall see further on, the miracles that the Lord wrought for the Jews also served as a vehicle for testing our depth of faith in G-d. Perhaps that is why the words nes (miracle) and nissayon (trial or test) are so similar (cf. Ex. 4:17). Jonathan ben Uzziel's commentary on Numbers 26:10 - "Whereupon the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korah - when that band died, when the fire consumed the two hundred and fifty men - and they became an example (nes)" - explains what is meant by nes: "they became a test." Rashi, Onkelos and Ibn Ezra, in contrast, explain this word as meaning a "sign and remembrance."

The idea of nes contains an inherent conflict: on the one hand, a nes (in the sense of miracle) is a vehicle through which the Creator bring home to human beings His intervention and providence to the extent that He changes the natural order of things, giving the faithful a vehicle for proving that his G-d is supreme and eternal. On the other hand there is the danger that a person who becomes accustomed to miracles as a way of solving problems might not strive to achieve what is required of him in the world (in terms of faith as well as action), but rather might sit back and rely on miracles. The conflict between these two aspects of miracles is a central motif in Jewish classical sources.

Beginning with the creation of the universe and continuing through the era of the patriarchs many miracles took place. Of all those generations, those who took part in the exodus from Egypt had the privilege of witnessing miracles of several orders of magnitude (in terms of their quantity and the quality of change in the natural order), as explained by the fact that the forty-nine levels of impurity in which the Israelites were living made it essential for G-d to intervene in a drastic manner in order to put the people back on the track of faith as part of the process of shaping them into a people and preparing them to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Therefore, in contrast to the assurances of divine providence given to Noah and our patriarchs (intended primarily to guarantee their safety and the future of their families, since they defied their generation of idolators to believe in one G-d), Moses was the first leader who was directed to use a miracle to convince the Israelites to believe in G-d and in Moses' mission, and to prove to Pharaoh that the demands to release the Israelites had a Supreme Being standing behind them.

When Moses was sent to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, he was commanded as follows: "And take with you this rod, with which you shall perform the signs" (Ex. 4:17). R. Obadiah Sforno (1470-1550, Italy) is quite explicit in his commentary on this verse: "For I have appointed you to change the course of nature upon your command." It was as if Moses received a mandate to use miracles as a means for achieving an end. But if we look more closely at the signs that Moses was given, we see a hint of the conflict that exists between the various notions of nes mentioned above. Three signs were given to Moses in the course of his becoming a leader (Ex. 4:1-9). In two of them, Moses performed a specific action (casting down the rod and taking water out of the Nile), and then miraculously something supernatural occurred. In the third sign Moses put his hand into his bosom - a motion which suggests standing by idly, waiting for a miracle - and his hand became encrusted with leprous scales - an indication of the worth of a person who idly awaits a miracle and does nothing himself. Be that as it may, due to the lack of spiritual depth of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, the Lord continued to stress the use of miracles as a policy for aiding them. When the Israelites complained about the harm caused them as a result of Moses' first audience with Pharaoh (in which Moses presented the miracles that the Lord enabled him to perform), saying, "May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers, putting a sword in their hands to slay us" (Ex. 5:21), the Lord immediately answered them, "You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land" (Ex. 6:1).

Further on, the Lord explained the existence of these miracles as part of the continuum of faith throughout the generations: "that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons' sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them - in order that you may know that I am the Lord" (Ex. 10:2). Note that throughout the entire series of wondrous miracles wrought by the Lord when the Israelites were in Egypt, during the exodus, and as they crossed the Red Sea (totaling 60 plagues, according to R. Yose ha-Gelili, 240 according to R. Eliezer, and 300 according to R. Akiva [see the Passover Haggadah]), the Israelites were at such a low level of spirituality that Scripture does not record even a single expression of wonder or appreciation by the people of the Lord's deeds.

This changed immediately upon the exodus from Egypt. Moses, who had grown accustomed to the principle of direct divine assistance whenever any problem arose, responded to the Israelites, who feared the approaching Egyptians: "The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!" (Ex. 14:14), thus indicating that there was nothing to worry about because G-d would solve the problem. G-d responded to this swiftly: "Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward" (v. 15). This represents a radical change in the message the Lord had been giving Moses and the Israelites. Thus far they had been in bondage and were entitled to rely on miracles. But henceforth it would no longer be acceptable to "sit back and rely on a miracle." Rather, the people would be expected to act and take risks, while trusting in the Lord; and He would decide whether or not to help out by means of a miracle. According to a well-known legend, the Red Sea did not split until Nahshon son of Aminadab jumped into the water and advanced until the water came up to his mouth - a clear demonstration of the initiative that G-d now expected of all the Israelites. Perhaps this explains why for the first time ever, the Israelites responded to the miracle by a firm proclamation of faith: "And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses" (v. 31). Immediately after comes a lengthy paean of praise. The people understood that the miracle was not self-evident and that it should be especially appreciated. (Perhaps the verse, "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord" [Ex. 15:1] indicates that even for this song of praise the Israelites needed "encouragement" from Moses.)

Henceforth, all the miracles that were done for the Israelites also contained an element of trial, although the Israelites had not yet matured sufficiently to understand the new way of thinking that was required of them as a people:

1) The miracle of turning the water at Marah sweet (Ex. 15:25).

2) The miracle of the manna, "that I may test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not" (Ex. 16:4). In this case we see that the Lord's response towards those who did not believe in Him was stepped up one notch: "some of them left of it until morning, and it became infested with maggots and stank" (v. 20). Even the Lord hinted that they had reached the limit: "How long will you refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings?" (v. 28).

3) The miracle of obtaining water from the rock at Rephidim - "Why do you try the Lord?" (Ex. 17:2). Note especially the words of the Lord, "and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile" (Ex. 17:5). The reference to the Nile hints that the Israelites were expecting to witness miracles as had been done on the Nile, as a mode of daily life divinely assisted, i.e., miracles that did not place on them any obligation to have faith and trust in the Lord.

3) Even after the great miracle of the battle against Amalek, only Moses saw fit to thank the Lord: "And Moses built an altar and named it Hashem-nissi [the Lord is my banner]" (Ex. 17:15).

The process of forging the Israelites into a nation was accompanied by a continuing philosophical struggle between relying on miracles and the need to take action oneself, while putting one's trust in the Lord. To the righteous it is clear that one should not rely on miracles, for the righteous understand not only that direct divine assistance is undesirable but also that it actually leads to a drain on one's "bank" credit in the world to come, from which a sizable sum is deducted when a miracle is done for someone in this world. Note what the patriarch Jacob said before his encounter with Esau: "I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant" (Gen. 32:11). Rashi says this means his "credit had been diminished" by the kindness G-d had so steadfastly shown. Similarly, the gemara remarks, "As Rabbi Yannai said: Never should a person stand in a place of danger and say, 'A miracle will happen for me,' lest a miracle not happen for him; and if a miracle is done for him, it is deducted from his merits" (Ta'anit 20).

From the point of view of miracles as a vehicle for strengthening or diminishing a person's faith, I shall try to explain the controversy between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel regarding the way Hanukkah lights are to be kindled. "Most punctilious in their observance, the school of Shammai say that on the first day eight lights are to be kindled, and each successive day one fewer; the school of Hillel say one is to be lit on the first day, and an additional light each successive day" (Shabbat 21). Several theories have been given to explain this controversy between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, but these explanations do not relate to the essential principle on which they differed, as is generally the case with respect to their controversies on other issues.

In view of what we have explained above, we arrive at the following interpretation: The amount of oil found in the Temple should have sufficed to burn only for one day. Every additional day that the oil continued to burn heightened the miracle that the entire Jewish people witnessed in the Temple. The school of Hillel, whose halakhic rulings usually took into consideration their analysis of human nature and its weaknesses, operated on the assumption that a miracle which becomes greater each day tends to strengthen a simple person's faith in G-d. Therefore, each successive day a person would want to express this increasingly strong faith in G-d by kindling an additional light. The school of Shammai, whose halakhic rulings were based on "pure" logic and did not involve assumptions about human nature, expected a person to be able to find faith and trust in the Lord through study and analysis of the simple act of creation that is renewed each day, and through the knowledge that whatever a person does (even if he fails), the Lord makes it the best for him. Hence, they did not view the human need for an ever-increasing miracle as a crutch on which to support one's faith as a positive thing. Therefore, on the first night, when after great effort and self-sacrifice for the Jewish people, the Maccabees finally achieved victory and found a single pot of oil (which could also be seen as a coincidence and not a miracle), one should kindle eight lights, for at that moment a person is tested regarding true faith, showing "in all your ways acknowledge Him." Each successive day, as the person's faith is further buttressed by an ever-increasing miracle, the number of lights should diminish because the level of pure and innocent faith decreases. Therefore the school of Shammai advocated decreasing the number of lights each day, since each successive day increased the reliance on miracles and decreased the need to come to terms with pure unassisted faith. Perhaps this also explains why the school of Shammai did not accept the argument of "increasing sanctity (ma'alin bekdusha)." According to their perception, the increase in sanctity should come from a person's faith, inspired by daily witnessing and appreciating the glory of Creation, and not from being assisted by miracles.

An interesting question discussed by commentators is why we light candles for eight days. After all, the amount of oil that was found sufficed for one day, so there had not yet been any miracle on the first day. Some answer that even on the first night they realized the oil would not suffice, and so they divided what they had into eight portions. Ha-Meiri makes the following remark on this theory (Beit Ha-Behirah, Shabbat 21):

On the first night, which involved no miracle, a benediction is recited to give thanksgiving for deliverance and for finding a pot of oil; the rest of the nights one blesses over the miracle of the oil. Some people are of the opinion that those who found the oil sensed that it would not suffice, and so they divided it straightaway for eight nights according to the time required to go and return [to get fresh oil]; but this does not seem right to me, for if that were the case, it meant that they relied on a miracle already for the first night (since they had no way of knowing that one-eighth of the usual amount would last till morning).

For Ha-Meiri there can be no doubt that the generation that gave rise to the Hasmoneans, to Hannah and her seven sons, and to the other heroic figures who gave their lives and those of their families to secure the spiritual future of the Jewish people - that this generation did not rely on a miracle even for a single night. Such a generation was rewarded by an unmistakable miracle that lasted continuously for eight whole days.