On the miracles, on the redemption, on the mighty acts, on the salvations, and on the wars that You performed for our fathers in those days, in this time. (Al HaNisim prayer)
The Chanukah and Purim versions of the Al HaNisim prayer
Chanukah and Purim both recall dramatic episodes in Jewish history. In both of these episodes we were confronted by threats of annihilation and in each we were rescued by Hashem. There are also similarities in the observance of these two celebrations. On both, we insert into the Amidah and into Birkat HaMazon a version of the Al HaNisim thanksgiving prayer.
Let us compare and contrast these two versions of the prayer. Both versions share a fundamental theme – salvation from our enemies. This theme is presented through the three basic components of the prayer. The Al HaNisim prayer opens with the above statement of thanksgiving. We acknowledge the salvation of our people by Hashem. Second, the prayer describes a conflict that threatened to destroy us. In regards to Purim, this is the plan of Haman to annihilate the Jewish people in the kingdom of Achashverosh. Chanukah recalls our conflict with the Hellenist Assyrian kingdom. The third element describes our triumph over our wicked adversary or our salvation from catastrophe.
The Purim version of the Al HaNisim prayer is briefer than the Chanukah version. The reason for its brevity is that it does not include as elaborate a description of our rescue. The Purim version merely states that Hashem undermined Haman’s plans. Rather than annihilating the Jews, Haman and his sons were destroyed.
You adopted their grievance. You enforced their judgement. You avenged them. You delivered the mighty into the hand of the weak, the many into the hand of the few, the defiled into the hand of the pure, the wicked into the hand of the righteous, the willfully evil into the hand of those who study Your Torah. And for Yourself, You made Your name great and sanctified in Your world. (Al HaNisim prayer for Chanukah)
The unique elements of the Chanukah version of Al HaNisim
In the Chanukah version the third element is much more elaborate and descriptive. It includes the following material:
- Hashem is described as working through the Jewish people. He empowers them to overcome their adversaries.
- Two paradigms are used to describe the Jewish people’s triumph over their enemies. One paradigm is military. The might and superior numbers of the enemy were overcome by a smaller and weaker force. The second paradigm is a moral one. The righteous and pure defeated the wicked and defiled.
- The triumph of the Jews over their enemies is described as a sanctification of Hashem’s name.
Let us consider these last two components.
In the days of Matityahu the son of Yochanan, the Kohen Gadol of the Hashmonaim family and his sons. When the evil Hellenist kingdom arose against Your nation to force them to forget Your Torah and to violate the statutes of Your will. (Al HaNisim prayer for Chanukah)
The character of the Chanukah conflict
In order to appreciate the significance of this added material, we must consider more carefully the fundamental nature of each of these conflicts. The Purim miracle was that Hashem saved His people from Haman’s plan to destroy the Jewish nation. It is true that he was motivated by issues stemming from our commitment to Torah. Specifically, he understood that Judaism opposes the exaltation and worship of any human being. He resented the Jewish people because they were an obstacle to his promulgation of the self-myth of greatness. However, despite this religious underpinning, the conflict did not manifest itself as a religious struggle. Haman was not interested in altering the religious doctrines of the Jewish people. He wished to annihilate us. In short, the religious conflicts were in the background and latent. The manifest expression was a campaign to destroy our people.
In contrast, Chanukah focuses upon an historical religious conflict. The Hellenists were not bent upon destroying the Jewish people. They sought to convert us to their world view. This was a conflict between perspectives and cultures. The Hellenists directed their aggression against our Torah. They suppressed Torah study and observance and they defiled the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple. This battle was over religious issues.
This difference between the two conflicts is reflected in the way they are respectively described in the Al HaNisim prayer. The Chanukah victory is not described merely in military terms – the few and weak overcame the strong and the many. It is described in religious and moral terms. The righteous overcame the wicked and the sacred vanquished the defiled. Why is this religious/moral paradigm employed? It provides a description of the conflict – it was religious in nature.
The Chanukah victory sanctified Hashem’s name
Understanding this difference between the two conflicts explains another aspect of their respective treatments in the Al HaNisim prayer. The defeat of Haman and the preservation of the Jewish people is not characterized in the Al HaNisim prayer as a sanctification of Hashem’s name. This is because the overt conflict was not focused upon good versus evil. It was a conflict between two peoples. The defeat of the Hellenists is described as a sanctification of Hashem’s name because this conflict was focused upon issues of right and wrong, good and evil. It is the triumph of righteousness over wickedness that sanctifies Hashem’s name.
The foundation of our enemies’ hatred
As noted above, both conflicts were motivated by religious antipathies. They differ in the manner in which the religious resentments were expressed. Haman’s strategy was to destroy our nation. The Assyrian Hellenists sought to uproot our commitment to our Torah. In both instances we survived and our enemies were defeated. These are two of many instances in which our enemies have tried to destroy us. We have survived these countless persecutions only through the intervention of Hashem. However, despite the incessant nature of the antipathy directed against our people, we have reason to actually derive solace from our historical plight. If our enemies truly believed in the superiority of their own world-view, they would have no reason to wish to destroy us. They would merely dismiss us as a clan of primitives. Why did Haman and the Hellenists not merely ignore us? Implicitly expressed in our enemies’ consistent hatred and aggression is their acknowledgment of their insecurities. Haman, the Assyrians, and so many other subsequent adversaries could not dismiss us because they knew deep in their hearts that we represent a truth that they could not ignore and that threatened their own world-view. So, although we continue to be the target of hatred and aggression, we receive some comfort. We know that their regard for the truth of our Torah underlies their behavior.