What Was ‘The’ Miracle of Chanukah?

In many prayer books there is a paragraph to be recited after one lights the Chanukah menorah. This paragraph praises God for the different types of miracles He did during the original Chanukah story and uses the words “salvations,” “miracles” and “wonders” as different types of miracles. But what were these specific miracles in the Chanukah story?

First, we must understand the event that matches each of these different types of miracles in the Chanukah story. The event that is the greatest type of miracle is “the” miracle of Chanukah. As one can surmise, it is not going to be what most people have been taught as to what was “the” miracle of Chanukah.

A “salvation” is an event where two equal forces compete, and the “good guys” win. This is the lowest level of a miracle. The second level of a miracle, called a “miracle,” is an event that is counter to nature and is exactly how we understand the term miracle in everyday language. A “wonder” is the highest level of a miracle, but it occurs within the framework of nature. Contrary to a “salvation” that also occurs within nature, a “wonder” did not have to occur at all but did, and the fact that it did occur is why this is the highest level of miracle.

When Mattisyahu and his sons killed the Greek army unit at Modiin, this was a salvation-level of miracle. There were two equal forces fighting, but Mattisyahu and his brothers won.

The Jewish military victory over the Greeks was the middle level of miracles. This is because the Greeks were superior militarily and should have defeated the Jews, but the Jews won. Thus, a “miracle.”

So what was the “wonder” of Chanukah? It cannot be the one day’s worth of oil burning for eight days in the Temple’s seven-branch menorah, because this was beyond nature, and wonder-level miracles occur within nature. Erroneously, Hebrew School curriculum writers, teachers and even most rabbis have chosen to highlight the one day of oil lasting eight days as “the” miracle of Chanukah — it makes for a climactic story, but this was one of the lower- level miracles.

The miracle of Chanukah is the finding of one jar of oil that had not been opened by the Greeks. This may sound anti-climactic at first, but once you know some of the key historical details in the Chanukah story and understand the cause and effect of how Jews do mitzvot and how God does miracles for us, it makes sense.

The Greeks were not opposed to Jewish culture and practices as long as the Jews did not claim that the practices were commanded by God. According to Jewish law, the oil used in the Temple’s menorah had to be pure, but in a crisis, contaminated oil was permitted. The Greeks knew this, so they opened all of the containers and touched the oil in each one. The Greeks didn’t mind that a menorah was lit in the Temple, it just had to have a “Greek touch” — literally and pragmatically.

According to the Kabbalah, the cause and effect of the Jews deserving each type of miracle is as follows: Jews merit salvation-level miracles through fulfilling God’s will. For example, the Shema states, “If you will walk in My statutes and keep My commandments … I will give you rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce.” When a Jew keeps the mitzvot, God does miracles for him or her that occur within the natural functioning of the world.

A miracle-level miracle is merited only if Jews go beyond what God commanded and do the mitzvot with hiddur, meaning with enhancement and beautification. Using a beautiful Kiddush cup instead of just a glass for Kiddush, buying the more expensive lulav and etrog and using an oil-based Chanukah menorah instead of one with candles are all examples of this. When a Jew goes beyond what is required, God goes beyond nature in doing miracles.

Wonder-level miracles are merited by Jews who do mitzvot with mesirat nefesh. The translation is “self-sacrifice,” but it is much more than this. Mesirat nefesh means that a Jew reaches the level of surrendering his or her personal identify to recognize that a Jew’s purpose is to live a life of performing mitzvot, no matter the challenges. This is an internal mode of a person that is not obvious to an onlooker, thus wonder-level miracles do not violate nature but occur within the natural workings of the world.

Since the non-Hellenized Jews were operating on the level of not only performing the mitzvot with hiddur, but also with mesirat nefesh, it makes sense that God rewarded them with the highest level of miracle, the wonder-level miracle of being able to light the menorah in the best way possible — with pure oil. Thus, this is “the” miracle of Chanukah.

Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman is a science and special education teacher at a Boston-area public school. This article is based on a talk given in 1953 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.

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