Thursday, December 2, 2010



Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi




The story of the Chanukah miracle is well known, and is based on the Talmud’s answer to the question: “What is Chanukah” (Shabbat 21b)?
 After the victorious campaign of the Maccabees and the routing of the Seleucid invaders, the work of cleansing and purifying the Holy Temple in Jerusalem commenced. The Hellenized Syrians had completely desecrated the Temple. All its holy contents had been defiled save for one small flask of oil for the eternal flame.  It contained sufficient fuel to keep he flame alive for one day, but miraculously sustained it for the full eight days it took for a fresh supply of untainted oil to arrive. We celebrate this miracle by adding a flame to our Chanukah menorah each evening of the festival until all eight are kindled on the last evening.

  The Prayer Book explains the miracle very differently: “In the time of Mattityahu, the son of Yochanan the Hasmonean High Priest and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to alienate them from the statutes that You desired. Then in Your abundant mercies You stood up for them at the time of their distress.  You took up their cause, judged their claims, and exacted vengeance for them.  You delivered them strong into the hand of the weak, the many into the hand of the few, the impure into the hand of the pure, the wicked into the hand of the righteous and the deliberate transgressors into the hand to those who were engaged with Your Torah.  You made a great and hold name for Yourself in Your world, and accomplished great salvation and redemption for Your people Israel on that day, after which Your children came into the innermost Chamber of Your House, cleansed Your royal abode, purified Your Temple and kindled lights in the courts of Your sanctuary.  They established these eight days of Chanukah to render praise and acknowledgement of Your great Name”.

Astonishingly, this description, which is recited at least three times each day during the Chanukah period, makes no mention whatsoever of the tiny cruse of oil that burned for eight days.  Significantly, the liturgy elaborates on the miraculous outcome of the military struggle, in which the weak and outnumbered Jewish people vanquished the multitudes of their better-armed foes.

 Which, then, was the real Chanukah miracle—the single-day supply of oil that burned for eight days, or the unprecedented, astonishing military victory of the Maccabees?

 According to the great Rabbi Loewe of Prague, the Maharal, Chanukah is really the celebration of the miraculous victory. He argues that Hallel, the liturgical selection of psalms of praise and gratitude, never celebrates the fulfillment of any mitzvah. It certainly does not celebrate the mitzvah of the kindling of the Chanukah menorah, which could have been fulfilled even with impure oil had no pure oil been available.  Hallel always acknowledges the deliverance of the Jewish people from physical danger, or the culmination of the process of deliverance.  Why then, he asks, does the Talmud transmute the miraculous military victory into the miracle of the fuel that burned for eight days instead of one?

 His answer is profound.  The miraculous nature of great military victories is all too quickly rationalized in non-miraculous terms.  Surely the Maccabees were more motivated than the foreign invaders.  Surely they were more familiar with the terrain.  Surely their guerrilla tactics were more appropriate than the slow moving, regular Imperial battle formations. Surely Judah the Maccabee was a more gifted military tactician than his Syrian counterpart. For all these reasons, suggests the Maharal the real Chanukah miracle would soon have been forgotten, whereas the incredible story of the cruse of oil would serve as a permanent reminder of the role of the Divine Providence in the Chanukah miracle.

Our own experience has re-enforced the Maharal’s wise insight.  Most of us remember the events that preceded and followed the Six-Day War in 1967.  Jewish angst was universal.  The Suez Canal was closed.   Egyptian and Syrian forces were on the move.  Israel pleaded with Jordon not to interfere, not once, but over and over again.  The Jewish leaders were deeply concerned with having to deal with a Jordanian front as well.  Who could have imagined that King Hussein’s refusal to hold fire would again place a reunited Jerusalem and the holiest Jewish sites in Jewish hands, and that Judah and Samaria would once again be Jewish.  The most hardened secular Israelis melted at the sounding of the shofar of the liberated Kotel [Western Wall].  The spontaneous return of so many Jewish agnostics to the religious fold was a striking reflection of the perception that the victory was miraculous.  And yet, after a few short years, the miracle was rationalized away-- just as the Chanukah miracle had been more than two thousand years before.  Indeed, many Israelis actually came to believe that the victory was pyrrhic, and were ready to easily surrender what God had given them.  As Abba Eban once famously noted:  Never before in the annals of warfare had the victors sued for peace, and the vanquished made itself ready for still more war.

The true profundity of the Maharal’s understanding of the Chanukah miracle is its application to the nature of miracles in general.  For whatever reason, people are unable to discern the miraculous dimension of even the most normal events.  Not so the Jewish tradition.  Three times each day, we thank God “for Your miracles that we experience each and every day, evening, morning, “ 

For the spiritually attuned Jew, every breath we take is a miracle.  Any serious asthmatic will attest tot this. Every normally functioning body is a miracle.

The very beautiful blessing that we recite after visiting the bathroom is a striking illustration of this outlook: “Blessed are You, Lord, God of the universe, for having fashioned the human in wisdom, and for having created in them orifices and closed vessel. Should any of those be blocked, or any of these burst open, we could not possibly survive. Blessed are You, Lord, Healer of all flesh, Who acts miraculously”.

The real lesson of Chanukah is that the most ordinary is, in fact, extraordinary.  It is not fortuitous that the Joseph story is always read during Chanukah.  On its face, it is the story of a gifted human being, whom the Torah designates as a “successful man” and who, by dint of his talent, insights, wisdom, and ingenuity emerges from the depths, to become the second most powerful individual in the greatest empire in the world.  But we know differently.  The whole point of the Joseph story is a demonstration that Divine Providence guides the mundane affairs of humankind.  Joseph himself acknowledges this reality when he reassures his brothers that their callous betrayal was an instance of the inscrutable will of God. 

Joseph knew that the ordinary is extraordinary.  The Maharal of Prague urges us to be conscious of the miraculous nature of every breath we take, and of every victory we win.


  1. Given the Maharal's understanding of when we recite Hallel, why do we say Hallel on Rosh Chodesh?