Chanukah @ Shemayisrael

by Rabbi Ben Zion Sobel 

Concerning Chanukah, there is a very famous question posed by the Beis Yosef (Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, in his commentary on the Tur Shulchan Aruch). Why is Chanukah celebrated for eight days? In the Gemara (Shabbos 21b), the story of the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days is related. There we are told that the flask of pure oil, which was found after the war, contained enough to burn for one evening. Accordingly, there was no miracle on the first day, but only on the succeeding seven days, when the oil continued to burn all night. Why then should we celebrate the holiday for more than seven days?

One of the three answers the Beis Yosef offers is that since the kohanim knew that it would take eight days to process new oil, they divided the contents of the flask into eight parts and burned one-eighth every evening, which miraculously burned all night. Therefore, since the Jews experienced a miracle of the menorah every night of the eight days, we celebrate Chanukah for eight days.

Others answer that the first day is celebrated to commemorate the miracle of a handful of Jews winning the war against the mighty Syrian-Greek army. Still another answer is that the first day is celebrated to recognize the miracle of finding a flask of pure oil.

Over the generations, many more approaches have been suggested to answer the Beis Yosef’s question, and a book called Ner Limei’ah comprises one hundred answers. The following unique approach is based upon the teachings of Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv zt”l, known as the Alter of Kelm.

The Ramban (Shemos 13:16) clears up a common misconception about miracles. We may think that only a phenomenon which is contrary to the rules of nature, like the splitting of the Red Sea, is to be considered a miracle, since it is a supernatural event. Actually though, the very rules of nature are themselves miracles. However, since Hashem decreed that they should occur on a regular, predictable basis, we call them “nature,” as opposed to those miracles which are rare occurrences and not part of the normal order of the world. Therefore, the proper attitude, says the Ramban, is that common, everyday experiences should be considered “hidden miracles,” since their marvelous essence is not readily visible to all, while unusual, rare events should be called “revealed miracles,” since any honest observer can immediately recognize them for what they are.

But really there is no intrinsic difference between the “hidden” and the “revealed” miracles. The difference is only in us, based upon what we are used to experiencing and what we rarely experience. For example, we would surely say that the manna from Heaven was a great, “revealed” miracle, whereas plowing, planting and reaping is the “natural” way of life, a “hidden” miracle at most.

But Reb Yankeleh Galinsky shlita once asked us to imagine for a moment someone who was born in the desert after the Children of Israel left Egypt. For almost the entire forty years he had known that his food rations came down from the sky every morning, with a double portion on Friday for Shabbos, when no manna ever fell.

Finally, he was privileged to enter the Land of Israel, led by Yehoshua, the successor of Moshe Rabbeinu. The next morning, there was no manna. This fellow, along with the rest of the people, was overcome by panic. They all wondered where their future meals would come from. They approached Yehoshua for an answer.

“Have no fear,” replied the righteous leader. “We will plant and grow our own food. With Hashem’s help there will be plenty for everyone.”

“What does it mean ‘to plant and to grow?’” asked our friend and others in wonderment. “What is this ‘food’ you’re referring to?”

“Come, let me show you,” said Yehoshua, and he then demonstrated for them how to plant seeds. The people remained skeptical. “How will we live without manna?” they asked. “How will those tiny ‘seeds’ in the ground provide food for so many people?”

Yehoshua entreated them to be patient for a while, and they realized that they had no choice but to wait for the results of his strange performance.

At night, when no one was looking, some of the more curious ones stealthily dug up some of the seeds. To their great dismay they found no “food” in the ground - only decay and fermentation. When they showed their friends what was going on underground, they all began to wail. “We’re going to starve to death. Without the manna which fell in the zechus (merit) of Moshe Rabbeinu, we are doomed. Why did Hashem take us out of Egypt - to kill us in the Land of Israel?”

Yehoshua heard the tumult and tried to calm them down. “Be patient, my friends, just a little bit longer, and you’ll see what the ground is capable of producing. You’ll have enough food to eat and leave over. Have no fear. Trust in Hashem and all will be well. He loves you more than a father loves his only son.”

In the beautiful warm Israeli spring, vegetables began to grow, and, within a short time, fruit trees bore luscious fruits. Yehoshua gathered the people together and gave them to eat from the produce of the land. Their mouths watered and their appetites were satiated with delicious fruits and vegetables.

Our pal who was born in the desert exclaimed, “Now I see that Israel is truly a land of miracles. Here we don’t get food by derech hateva, through natural means, in the form of daily manna from the sky. Here, in Hashem’s Holy Land, He demonstrates His greatness through revealed miracles. Imagine, we put a tiny ‘seed’ into the ground, where it rots, and from that comes delicious ‘food.’ This is truly a miracle as great as the splitting of the Red Sea!”

It is clear from this mashal (allegory) that to classify a miracle as being “hidden” or “revealed” depends solely upon the world situation at that particular time. Those miracles which Hashem is showing often, on a regular basis, at that moment in time, should be labeled “hidden,” while those which are uncommon then should be called “revealed” ones.

The Ramban continues to teach us that the purpose of the rare occurrence of “revealed” miracles is to make us aware that the “natural” events are also miracles, albeit “hidden” ones. When we see that Hashem has the power to change the normal course of things, we are expected to realize that the way things were running until then was also nothing less than the Will of Hashem. The reason the sea turned into dry land is because the state of wetness which preceded it was nothing more than a fulfillment of Hashem’s injunction.

The Ramban concludes that anyone who does not believe that everything in the world, “natural” or “unnatural,” is nothing less than Hashem’s doing, has no part in the Torah of Moshe, because only thus can he believe that if he plants in the seventh year, for example, he will be punished with “natural” phenomenon such as draught and famine. Only then can he be confident that if he keeps the Torah’s mitzvahs, he will be rewarded with a plentiful crop which will provide food for his animals and for himself, to eat to satiety.

The Gemara (Ta’anis 25a) relates that Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s daughter mistakenly filled the Shabbos candelabrum with vinegar. When she realized her mistake, she was very upset. Her father comforted her and said, “He Who decreed that oil should burn, will say that vinegar should burn!” She then lit the candelabrum and miraculously the vinegar burned the entire Shabbos.

The Alter of Kelm says that if the lesson we learn from this story is merely that Hashem performed a miracle and made the vinegar burn like oil, then we have missed the main point. What we are supposed to realize, according to the Ramban’s teaching that we just learned, is that just as it is clear in our minds, beyond any doubt, that only Hashem could have performed such a “revealed miracle” and made the vinegar burn, so must we be convinced that it is only Hashem’s will that causes the “natural, hidden miracle” that oil burns! Every single phenomenon in the world is nothing but a manifestation of Hashem’s will.

And so it was at the time of the holy Chashmona’im. True, there was enough oil to burn for one evening, and it was only “unnatural” for the small amount of oil to burn for another seven days. However, when the kohanim and all of Yisrael saw the “revealed miracle,” they realized that the fact that the oil “naturally” burned even the first evening was also nothing less than a “hidden miracle” - the only difference being that this was a common event which they were used to observing.

Therefore, as we sing in the fifth stanza of the hymn ma oz tzur: “binei vinah, yimei shemonah, kav’u shir urinanim” - the “children of understanding” declared eight days for celebrating the event of Chanukah. They understood that even the everyday doings were all works of Hashem, no less a miracle than the splitting of the Red Sea.


Chanukah @ Shemayisrael