There is a peculiar contrast between the Talmud's relation of the miracle
of Chanuka and that which we emphasize in the "Al HaNissim" addition to the
Amidah (prayer of 19 blessings, central to our thrice daily services) and
Birkas HaMazon (Grace after Meals). When the Talmud (Tractate Shabbos 21b)
relates the essence of Chanuka, it skips the entire story of the war
against the Greeks and presents the miracle of the lone jug of oil found
intact in the Bais HaMikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem) which contained one
day's oil but burned for eight, until new oil could be produced. In our
prayers, however, we thank G-d for delivering the mighty into the hands of
the weak and focus on the miraculous military victory, but do not mention
the miracle of the Menora. We do declare that in the aftermath of the
triumph, "Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, cleansed
Your Temple, purified the site of Your Holiness and kindled the lights in
the Courtyard of Your Sanctuary; and they established these eight days of
Chanuka to express thanks and praise to Your great Name." We reference the
candles and the holiday, but do not tie the two together via the miracle of
the lights. The sole Rabbinic mitzvah (command) of this festival is the
candle lighting to remember the eight day miracle. How can our prayers
ignore that? Furthermore the miracle was not eight days, it was seven - the
oil found was one day's worth, so that first day involved no miracle. Why
is it, too, commemorated?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986; Rosh Yeshiva/Dean of Mesivtha Tifereth
Jerusalem in New York City; the leading Halachic/Jewish legal decisor of
his time and one of the principal leaders of Torah Jewry through much of
the last century) notes that when we contemplate the miracle of one day's
oil burning for eight - that a miracle is G-d's decision to depart from His
ordinary standard, known as "nature" - we start to realize the concept that
"nature" is really the category of miracles to which we are privy on a
regular, daily basis, and that the very flammability of oil is no less
miraculous. In fact, the very concept of G-d's creation and the "nature"
that comes with it is more miraculous than the rare departures from the
norm. The Talmudic paradigm of appreciation of all of creation being truly
miraculous was exhibited by Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa (Tractate Ta'anis 25a)
who, late Friday afternoon consoled his daughter who accidentally bought
vinegar instead of oil for the Shabbos lamps. "He who commanded oil to burn
will command vinegar to burn," and it did, throughout the entire Shabbos.
One is not allowed to derive personal benefit from a miracle - and Rabbi
Chanina derived pleasure from the Shabbos lamps - but for Rabbi Chanina,
the burning of oil was no less wondrous, so this was not, by his standards,
a miracle. For most of humanity, though, they are all miracles: the burning
of vinegar, one day's oil burning for eight...and, indeed, the very fact
that oil burns at all.
In reality, all eight days the oil burned were miraculous. Thus, concludes
Rabbi Feinstein, our prayers need only mention the lighting of the candles.
If the liturgy mentioned the miracle of the extended burning of the oil,
the miracle of the very flammability is negated. By simply declaring that
the Menora was kindled, we give testimony to the miracle of all creation.
The "Al HaNissim" addition is inserted into the "Modim" (We are thankful)
blessing of the Amidah, which includes our gratitude for "your wonders and
favors at all time" - reflexive breathing, a beating heart, five
functioning senses, arms and legs that are ready and waiting for my brain's
command, just to name a few. The miracles of Chanuka themselves remind us
of just how ordinary they really are by compelling us to appreciate the
greater miracles from which we derive benefit every moment of every day.
Have a Good Shabbos and a Happy Chanuka!
Kol HaKollel is a publication of the Milwaukee Kollel - Center for Jewish
Studies [5007 West Keefe Avenue; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; 414-447-7999]