Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

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 God 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 what each of these different types of miracles are in order to match them up with the various events 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 — and this is the lowest level of a miracle.

The second level of a miracle, which is 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.

Now to identify each of the events in the Chanukah story which what type of miracle it was…

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

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

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

The miracle of Chanukah, however, is the miracle that the Wonder level of miracle was.  So what was the Wonder level miracle?  THE miracle of Chanukah is the finding of one jar of oil that had not been opened by the Greeks. This may sound anti-climatic at first, but once knows some of the key historical details in the Chanukah story, and one understands the cause and effect of how Jews do Mitzvot and how God does miracles for us, it will make sense as to why this was the greatest miracle of Chanukah.

The Greeks were not opposed to Jewish culture and practices as long as the Jews did not claim that the practices were commanded from God According to Jewish Law the oil used in the Temple’s Menorah had to be pure, but in a crisis situation it was permitted to use contaminated oil.  The Greeks obviously knew this so they opened all of the oil containers and touched the oil in each container. (Our Hebrew school teacher’s telling us that the Greeks destroyed all the oil in the Temple’s reserves was also not true.)  The Greeks didn’t mind that a Menorah was lit in the Temple, it just had to have a “Greek touch” – literally!

Additionally, according to the Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism), the cause and effect of the Jews deserving each type of miracle is as follows:

(a) Jews merit Salvation level miracles to occur through fulfilling God’s will. For example, in the Shema it 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..”  In sum, when a Jew keeps the Mitzvot God does miracles for him/her that occur within the natural functioning of the world.

(b) A Miracle level miracle is merited only if Jews go beyond what God commanded and do the Mitzvot with HiddurHiddur means enhancement and beautification.  For example, using a beautiful Kiddish cup for Kiddush instead of just a glass, buying the more expensive Luluv and Etrog, and using an oil Chanukah Menorah instead of one with candles. When a Jew goes beyond what is required, God goes beyond nature in doing miracles.

(c) Wonder level miracles are merited by Jews who do Mitzvot with Mesirat Nefesh.  The translation of Mesirat Nefesh is “self-sacrifice” but it is much more than this.  Mesirat Nefesh means that a Jew reaches the level of surrendering his personal identify to viewing that his/her 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 (beautification), but also with Mesirat Nefesh (self-sacrifice), it makes sense that God rewarded them with the highest level of miracle — a Wonder level miracle of being able to light the Menorah in the best way which was with pure oil.  Thus, finding one jar of oil that the Greeks missed opening is “The” miracle of Chanukah.

A practical lesson we can take from this is that according to the theology of Kabbalah, there is a correlation between how we do Mitzvot and the degree to which God performs miracles for us.  Although we do Mitzvot because we love God,  if we want a rebound effect of God doing different types of miracles for us then we should evaluate how we are doing Mitzvot — normally/simply, with Hiddur, or also with Mesirat Nefesh.  Happy Chanukah!

This d’var Torah was based a talk by the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schnersohn z”l

About the Author
Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman is a special education teacher for his "day job," and an outreach rabbi in his free-time.
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