The Making of a Miracle

15 Dec

As we have passed the halfway point in of our Chanukah celebration, moving to the other side of the shamash, I wish to revisit the ancient practice of lighting these lights.

As the Talmud does in so many places, in Tractate Shabbat, 23b it records a question of priorities.  The situation is that one has very, very limited funds:

Raba questioned: What [if the choice lies between] the Chanukah lamp and the wine for kiddush: is the latter more important, because it is a weekly, regular feature; or perhaps the Chanukah lamp is preferable, on account of advertising the miracle? After asking the question, he himself solved it: The Hanukkah lamp is preferable, on account of advertising the miracle.

It seems to me that in this text, the way that Raba asks the question and answers it himself, he clearly wanting to make this point – the reason we light Chanukah candles is to advertise the miracle.

Further, the Talmud instructs us that men and women are obligated in this time-bound positive commandment. (Traditionally women were exempt from most time-bound positive commandments.) Even more, the poor were obligated so beg, even to sell the shirt off of their backs in order to aquire for themselves oil and light at least one candle each of the eight nights of the celebration.

Why did the sages choose to make observance of this rabbinic commandment so significant?

Also, this notion – advertising the miracle – is somewhat confusing. That is to say, what is the objective of advertising the miracle? 

Normally we advertise information so that people will know about something they don’t already know about.  In the case of the Chanukah candles, we find ourselves generally “advertising” the miracle to friends, family, neighbors who already know it is Chanukah.  And if we really are advertising the miracle, how do we accomplish this by lighting candles without any further explanation?

Think about it this way – say you have never heard of Chanukah, never seen Chanukah lamps – you drive by someone’s home one day and see two candles, and then the next day three…what do you know that you did not know before?  Do you know there was a miracle? How do you interpret what you are seeing?

I am pretty sure that the term used by the Talmud here and in two other cases of rabbinic innovations – pirsumei nisa – translated as the advertisement of the miracle doesn’t mean what we think it means.

I would like to suggest that these words are a kind of code the rabbis of the Talmud used when they were anxious to make sure that a certain moment in history would be recognized and commemorated AS A MIRACLE throughout the generations – a moment like the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks in the second century BCE was such an event. 

Our sages of old interpreted this historical event as much more than a military victory – it was nothing less than a miracle.  And so, to be sure it would remembered as such, they instituted the lighting of the candles – so that WE who light them, generation after generation, would acknowledge and “publicize” the fact that what happened WAS truly a MIRACLE.

As we light the Chanukah candles, let us consider all of the events in our lives and in the life of our people that are truly miraculous.  An obvious one: the establishment of the State of Israel 61 years ago.  My concern is that  since there is no specific ritual associated with marking this great contemporary miracle, I fear we are taking it for granted.  We need to actively participate in the publicizing of this miracle.

Any ideas?

Let me offer a way to help you do this as you light the final two candles of Chanukah this year. Here is an additional stanza to Maoz Tzur that I have written –  in recognition of the modern miracle of our return to Zion, and the historic opportunity that lies before us.   Feel free to make it a part of your candle lighting celebration. 

Happy Chanukah wishes to you and yours…

אַלְפַּיִם שָׁנָה שֶׁל זִכְרוֹנוֹת

מֵעוֹלָם לֹא אָבְדָה תִּקְוָתֵנוּ

דּוֹר אַחַר דּוֹר, מֵאֲרָצוֹת שׁוֹנוֹת

לְצִיּוֹן נָשָׂאנוּ עֵינֵינוּ

חָזַרְנוּ אֶל מוֹלַדְתֵּנוּ, קִבַּצְנוּ גָּלוּיוֹתֵינוּ

מְדִינָה וְאוּמָה נַגְשִׁים חֲלוֹמֵנוּ


Two thousand years of memories,

Never did we lose our hope in the future-

Generation after generation, from many a nation,

To Zion did we lift up our eyes.

We have returned to our homeland,

We have gathered in our dispersed exiles,

Country and nation, we will fulfill our dream.


Alpayim shana shel zichronot

Me-olam lo avda tikvateinu

Dor achar dor, me-artzot shonot

Le-Tzion nasanu eyneynu

Chazrnu el moladeteinu, kibatznu galiyoteynu –

 Medina ve-uma, nagshim chalomeynu.



One Response to “The Making of a Miracle”

  1. Zusel ben Shlom Friday, December 25, 2009 at 1:30 am #

    I like the thought. Too many deny the dramatic military victories in the short life of Israel.

    Not by Dyan, not by Hod, but by Thy arm did we prevail.
    Unfortuynately, things happen so fast today that the corruption that followed the Hasmonians in generations grows in Israel today in each new admistration.

    Shalom – Morey…
    Zusel ben Shlomo

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