Chanukah: Al HaNisim

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29 Jun 2006

The Al HaNisim prayer which is recited during Shmoneh Esrei and Birkat HaMazon on Chanukah is quite lengthy. Unlike the Al HaNisim of Purim, which very briefly relates the basics of the Purim story, the Al HaNisim of Chanukah is very elaborate. After narrating the story of the Chanukah victory, the text seems to wax poetic:

“…You gave the mighty (Syrian-Greeks) into the hands of the weak (Jews), and the many into the hands of the few, and the defiled into the hands of the pure, and the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the malicious into the hands of those who engage in Your Torah. And You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your universe; and to Your nation, Israel, did You grant a great salvation and liberation, as on this day. And subsequently Your children came to Your holy abode, and they cleared out Your Palace, and they purified Your Temple, and they kindled lights in the courtyards of Your holy place. And they established these eight days of Chanukah in order to give thanks and praise to Your great name.”

The biblical Book of Psalms opened on one of the pages of the morning prayer, resting on a pedistal . There's also a shadow of a Jewish orthodox man on the wailing wall in the background. Shot in the western wall in the old city of Jerusalem.Why does the text contain the above, flowery addendum to the Chanukah narrative, detailing what the Jews did after the victory [“…Your children came into Your holy abode…and they established these eight days of Chanukah…”]? Why does it make no direct mention of the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days?

Let’s begin by contrasting Chanukah and Purim. Purim is a primarily a tale of salvation from physical annihilation. Although the tribulations prior to Haman’s downfall and the victories of Purim precipitated teshuvah and a renewed religious commitment on the part of the Jewish community, the central theme of Purim is that of rescue from death at the hands of Amalek [Haman and his cohorts]. This event therefore comprises the text of the Al HaNisim prayer of Purim.

Chanukah is starkly different. There was no threat of death to the Jews. Rather, Torah study and observance of mitzvos were at stake, for the Syrian-Greeks forbade them, and the Beis HaMikdash was defiled. Chanukah celebrates the Jews’ spiritual victory.

Therefore, the text of Al HaNisim of Chanukah could not stop at the point of detailing the Hasmonean military triumph. The real victory of Chanukah was that of the spirit, and the narrative of Al HaNisim thus continues to the spiritual significance of the Chanukah story, elaborating on the religious qualities of the victors, the Kiddush Hashem of their success, the redemption of the Beis HaMikdash and the eternal religious significance of the events. The physical triumph was merely a means for spiritual renewal and restoration, and it is this point which is the true focus of Chanukah’s Al HaNssim.

Still, why is the miracle of the oil not specifically mentioned?

The answer lies in the thematic motif at the end of Al HaNisim. The conclusion of the text details the physical work involved in reclaiming the Beis HaMikdash and the enactment of Chanukah as a holiday. [“…Your children came to Your holy abode, and they cleared out Your Palace, and they purified Your Temple, and they kindled lights…and they established these eight days…”] The narrative does not focus on the spiritual respite attained on Chanukah; instead, the spiritual work and effort of the victorious Jews are given attention.

Although the miracle of the oil affirmed that the military triumph of Chanukah reflected a deeper spiritual victory [and was a symbol of the presence of the Shechina in Israel – see Sefer Noraot HaRav], the true religious conquests for which we give thanks by reciting Al HaNisim in the Hoda’ah [“Thanksgiving”] bracha of Shmoneh Esrei and Birkat HaMazon are the freedom to engage in Torah and mitzvot and the redemption of the Beit HaMikdash. Please allow me to explain why this is so.

Passive Jewish religiosity was not the enemy of Hellenistic culture. Recognition of Jewish identity and spirituality did not clash with Syrian-Greek ideology, as spiritual virtues and self-image were within the bounds of Hellenistic, man-centered thinking. To claim that humans are endowed with Godliness and that each person has a unique national or spiritual identity was not at odds with Syrian-Greek worship of man, as these qualities accentuate additional aspects of man’s greatness.

Chanukah – and Torah as a whole – center on the service and supremacy of God and thereby declare the limitations of man. Hashem endowed man with wondrous physical, mental and spiritual capabilities not for man’s own exploitation and self-aggrandizement; on the contrary, man’s greatness and creativity exist for his pursuit of God and the establishment of the Divine Presence in man’s midst. Thus, pro-active pursuit of holiness is the Jew’s mandate, and restricting oneself so as to focus on Hashem is at the crux of the Torah’s directives. By the same token, active service of Hashem was the real enemy of Hellenism, as such service displays man’s subservience, directing all focus and praise on God. It is precisely the theocentric, God-focused path of Torah life, as embodied in active service of Hashem, which the Syrian-Greek culture could not tolerate. Avodat Hashem as the Master of the Universe negates the Hellenistic concept of man’s autonomy and magnificence. The Syrian-Greeks did not attempt to stifle our religious identity; rather, they sought to destroy our theocentric approach as borne out through Torah study, mitzvah performance and the sanctity of the Beis HaMikdash, which is the purest physical manifestation of service to Hashem and is itself a declaration of man’s limitations, for entry to its various parts is restricted to certain classes of persons and specific levels of purity. The Beis HaMikdash is the most forceful display of God-centered religion and man’s limitations.

Therefore, the conclusion of Chanukah’s Al HaNisim exclusively addresses the religious actions of the Jewish victors in reclaiming the Beit Ha-Mikdash and establishing Chanukah for permanent observance, and the passive spiritual message of the miracle of the oil is omitted; for subservience to God, as reflected by active service to Him, and the centrality of Hashem and limitations of man, as manifested by the Beis HaMikdash, clashed with Hellenism and were therefore at stake. The miraculous victory of Chanukah affirmed and restored these values.

It thus follows that “Mi laShem eilay” [“Whoever is committed to God should fight alongside me”] and “Mi chamocha ba-elim, Hashem” [“Who is like you among the spiritual beings, O God”] were the rallying calls of the Maccabees. Their war was to protect the supremacy and ultimate centrality of Hashem’s role in Jewish life.

May we strive to embody the characteristics and drive of Matisyahu and his sons, and may our approach to Torah be guided by the vision which is encapsulated in Al HaNisim. May Hashem enable us to realize our potential in Torah and understand that the highest form of His Avodah is not defined passively by our culture or identity, but by becoming pro-active Torah personalities, depicted as “those who engage in Your Torah”.