This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Miracles—Then and Now*

In one of the blessings that are recited before the kindling of the Ḥanukkah lights we praise the Almighty “who performed miracles for us in those days at this time.” Understood simply, it is identifying this day as the anniversary of the events that we are now commemorating.

Some older prayer books have a slightly different text that reads “in those days and at this time.” While this slight difference (a single letter in the Hebrew) does not necessarily alter the meaning, it is also open to a quite different interpretation, as if to say: just as we praise God for the exploits of the past, so do we thank him for his unceasing miracles in the present.

If the latter is the correct understanding of the blessing’s intention, then it involves a shift between distinct categories of prayer. Indeed, the ancient sages who formulated the Jewish liturgy were very conscious of the different modes in which mortals address the Creator. The central “Eighteen Benedictions” prayer is constructed on the model of a petitioner approaching a human monarch. One should begin the audience by praising the ruler, then set out the various requests, and finally withdraw respectfully with expressions of gratitude.

The Talmud provides little guidance about how to commemorate the festival and its miracle through the wording of the prayer service. The ancient sources state that a summary of the event [me‘ein ha-me’ora‘] should be inserted in the “thanksgiving” blessing, the penultimate blessing in the Eighteen Benedictions service; but they do not specify the wording for that text.

Probably the earliest document we have that contains a text of the Ḥanukkah supplement to the daily thanksgiving blessing is in the work known as “Masekhet Soferim,” a liturgical compendium that was composed around the seventh or eighth century, perhaps in Egypt or Italy. Masekhet Soferim is based largely on the practices that were current in the land of Israel, though it also cites Babylonian traditions.

Its Ḥanukkah addition goes: “Like the miraculous wonders and salvations of your priests that you performed in the days of Mattathias son of the High Priest Yoḥanan the Hasmonean and his sons—so, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, perform miracles and wonders, and we shall give thanks unto your name eternally.” Clearly it does not posit a hard and fast distinction between gratitude for past mercies and pleas for present and future redemption. Quite the contrary, it sees the two dimensions as inseparably linked and looks forward to future occasions for thanksgiving.

The passage that became the standard Ḥanukkah insertion in the Eighteen Benedictions and in the grace after meals is, of course, the “‘Al Ha-Nissim,” which expresses appreciation for the miracles and exploits that occurred on this day. It contains a summary of the the Hasmonean revolt emphasizing the unlikely victory of the righteous few over the formidable forces of wicked oppressors. Its wording seems to be influenced by the ancient books of Maccabees that were included in the rabbinic scriptural canon. On the other hand, it contains no allusion to the Babylonian Talmud’s legend about the miracle of the oil—a story that was not known to the midrashic traditions or the Jerusalem Talmud.

The earliest mention of the “‘Al Ha-Nissim” is found in the She’iltot, a Babylonian work from the early eighth century; however other than identifying the passage by its opening formula, it does not actually reveal its content. For that we have to advance to the tenth century, to the Order of Prayer compiled by Saadiah Gaon. That version is virtually identical to the one still recited today; but it includes an addendum noting that “Some add here: '...Just as you performed miracles for earlier generations, so may you do likewise for their successors, and bring us salvation in these days as in those days.”

This sentiment that views the miracles wrought for the Hasmoneans as precursors of the future salvation is in line with the beliefs expressed in Masekhet Soferim, and is consistent with the predilection of the liturgical poets in the holy land to extract numerous possibilities of meaning and thematic associations from every Hebrew word. Their characteristic emphasis on messianic redemption likely provided needed reassurance to the beleaguered Jews under the oppressive Byzantine Christian empire.

As it happens, the addendum does not dovetail very well with Saadiah’s own approach regarding the requirements of proper Hebrew prayer. In the programmatic introduction to his prayer book, he made it clear that he would not tolerate any rescripting of a blessing that amounted to a subversion of its primary meaning. He insisted that worshipers should be respectful of the authors’ original intentions; and hence the introduction of foreign matter was tantamount to committing the sin of mentioning God’s name unnecessarily. After all, the context in the closing section of the Eighteen Benedictions prayer is the expression of gratitude for past divine favours. That is not the correct setting to plead for future mercies.

Saadiah made his position clear in connection with the blessing in the daily morning service that praises the Almighty as the creator of the sun and other luminaries. In most current versions, the blessing’s concluding formula is preceded by a line in which light becomes an inspiring symbol for eschatological redemption: “May a new light shine upon Zion and may we all soon merit its radiance”! Saadiah deemed this addition intolerable because the sages who devised the liturgy “did not ordain this blessing over the future light of the messianic era, but rather over the daylight that shines each day, and nothing else... Hence anyone who mentions it ought to be silenced.” He applied the same strict logic to a phrase that many were inserting into the blessing for abundant agricultural years in the Eighteen Benedictions: “and you shall proclaim for your people a year of redemption and salvation.” Metaphoric usages, no matter how stirring, must not be allowed to violate the basic intent of a liturgical text.

Saadiah was more tolerant when it came to the blessing of the “redeemer of Israel” following the Shema‘. The basic theme of that section is Israel’s redemption from Egypt that culminated in the parting of the Red Sea and the song of Moses. Into this section was inserted a future-directed appeal: “Rock of Israel, arise in support of Israel and redeem, in accordance with your word, Judah and Israel.” Although Saadiah might not have been altogether pleased with this shift from past history to future expectation, the underlying theme of national redemption was not completely incompatible with the blessing’s original purpose. Perhaps he held a similar view about the mingling of past and future directions in the “‘Al ha-Nissim” passage.

A few generations after Saadiah, Rav Hai Gaon argued in support of maintaining a strict distinction between gratitude for past mercies and entreaties for future. He therefore noted that in the Babylonian academies it was not customary to recite the additional sentence in the ‘Al ha-Nissim praying for present and future salvation—even though he was aware that most communities did include it in their rites.

Throughout the medieval era Jewish communities remained divided and vacillating as regards the problematic sentence. Some versions were careful to speak of “giving thanks” for the present and future miracles, making the sentence more appropriate to its context in the blessing for thanksgiving. Eventually, most communities excluded the plea from their prayer books.

In some ways this ritual controversy shines a profound light on the archetypal Jewish experience: Try as we might, it is never an easy task to disentangle our past from our future.

This article and many others are now included in the book

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The Times of Our Life: Some Brief Histories of Jewish Time

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, November 30, 2018, p. 19.
  • For further reading:
    • Elbogen, Ismar. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. Translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin. Philadelphia and New York: Jewish Publication Society and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1993.
    • Heinemann, Joseph. Studies in Jewish Liturgy. Edited by Avigdor Shinan. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, the Hebrew University, 1981. [Hebrew]
    • Hoffman, Lawrence A. The Canonization of the Synagogue Service. Studies in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity 4. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979.
    • Jacobson, Issachar (Berhnard Salomon). Netiv Binah. 5 vols. Tel-Aviv: Sinai, 1981. [Hebrew]
    • Lieberman, Saul. Tosefta Ki-Feshuṭah: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Tosefta. Vol. 1: Order Zera‘im, Part I. 10 vols. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1955. [Hebrew]
    • Mann, Jacob. “Genizah Fragments of the Palestinian Order of Service.” Hebrew Union College Annual 2 (1925): 269–338.
    • Reif, Stefan C. Problems with Prayers: Studies in the Textual History of Early Rabbinic Liturgy. Studia Judaica 37. Berlin and New York: W. de Gruyter, 2006.
    • Stein, S. “The Liturgy of Hanukkah and the First Two Books of Maccabees.” The Journal of Jewish Studies 5 (1954): 148.
    • Wieder, Naphtali. “Fourteen New Genizah Fragments of Saadiah’s Siddur Together with a Reproduction of a Missing Part.” In Saadya Studies, edited by Erwin Isak Jakob Rosenthal, 274–83. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1943.