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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Articles about Hanukkah

"A Miracle in This Place"

The sages instituted the lighting of Chanukah candles because it “takes us back” to the site of the miracle. We are therefore called upon to sense that our kindling of these candles is tantamount to the lighting of the menorah in the Holy Temple.
Dedicated to the memory of
Asher Ben Haim
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1. R' Tanchum's Two Remarks
2. "Miracles for the Forefathers" and "A Miracle for Me"
3. Blessing Over the Miraculous
4. Comparing the Pit to Joseph's Descent to Egypt
5. The Miracle of the Oil and the Military Victory
6. The Site of the Miracle
7. "Who performed miracles for our forefathers" on Purim

R' Tanchum's Two Remarks
In addressing the topic of Chanukah, the Talmud (Shabbat 22) brings two statements by R. Tanchum: one relating to Halakha (Jewish law), and another belonging to the realm of Aggadah (homiletics). In Halakha, we are informed that "if one places a Chanukah candle in a place which is more than twenty cubits high, it becomes invalidated..." Immediately following this, Aggadah: "What are we to make of the biblical verse, 'The pit was empty, it contained no water' (Genesis 37:23)? Does not the fact that 'the pit was empty' imply that 'it contained no water'? We must conclude that the seemingly superfluous words 'it contained no water' indicate that while indeed there was no water in the pit, there were snakes and scorpions."

"Miracles for the Forefathers" and "A Miracle for Me"
In his classic Meshekh Chokhma, R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, better known as Or Sameach, sheds light upon the relation between R. Tanchum's two statements. In short, Or Sameach explains that R. Tanchum wishes to teach us that the blessing which we pronounce over the Chanukah candles ("Blessed is He Who performed miracles for our forefathers...") is tantamount to the blessing which a person recites when seeing a place where he once witnessed a miracle ("Blessed is He Who performed a miracle for me in this place"). Concerning the latter, we have a rule that it is only to be recited in the case of a miracle that clearly defies the laws of nature.

On Chanukah, there were two miracles: (a) the military victory over Antiochus' legions, which remained withing the realm of nature; and (b) the miracle of the oil that burned for seven days, which clearly defied the laws of nature.

Inasmuch as the blessing "...Who performed a miracle for me in this place" - and hence, "Who performed miracles for our forefathers..." - can only be pronounced over a miracle that defies the laws of nature, it cannot be said over the "miracle" of our military victory. It only applies to the nature-defying miracle of the oil. The sages therefore instituted reciting this blessing upon seeing the Chanukah candles, for these candles represent the place of the miracle. Accordingly, the candles must be kindled in a location which is less then twenty cubits high - what the sages refer to as "the area wherein the eye rules," i.e., the normal range of vision - so that its blessing be recited in a place which befits its cause, i.e., seeing the candles.

We can avail ourselves of Or Sameach's explanation to resolve a question raised generations earlier by the Tosafists: Why did the sages enact that one who sees Chanukah candles must pronounce the "Who performed miracles for our forefathers" blessing? There is no precedent for this among the commandments.

Based upon the foregoing exposition, we may now answer the Tosafists' question. According to Jewish law, this benediction is recited by "one who sees a place where he once witnessed a miracle." The blessing "Who performed miracles for our forefathers" was enacted to be pronounced upon seeing the candles, which, as we have said, represent the place of the miracle. The sages, however, charged the kindler of the candles with responsibility of blessing as he fulfills the commandment; this is the choicest time to bless, for the lighting does the mitzvah. Thus, even somebody who does not himself perform the commandment (i.e., does not see the actual place of the the miracle) can bless "Who performed miracles for our forefathers."

Or Sameach adds that R. Tanchum learned this from the episode of Joseph in the pit: On the verse, "And Joseph's brothers saw that their father had died" (Genesis 50:15), the Midrash comments: What precisely did they see? They saw Joseph returning from burying his father. He went to look at the pit into which they had thrown him. They thought, "Perhaps Joseph still holds a grudge against us," but Joseph had only good intentions. He had gone to the pit in order to recite "Blessed is He Who performed a miracle for me in this place."

Joseph merited two types of miracles: one natural and one supernatural. The natural miracle played itself out as Joseph was being taken down to Egypt. It involved everything that happened to him from the moment he was taken from the pit until the time he was finally made Pharaoh's viceroy. The miracle of his being saved from the pit which contained snakes and scorpions was different, for it defied the laws of nature. Therefore, when Joseph wished to recite the blessing "He Who performed a miracle for me in this place," he could not do this in response to the fact that he had saved in Egypt, for that was a hidden, natural miracle. Rather, he blessed God for saving him from the snake-pit, which was a true miracle. Therefore he went to the very same pit from which he had been saved in order to pronounce the blessing. In this, then, lies the connection between R. Tanchum's two statements.

Blessing Over the Miraculous
It is worth probing this matter a bit further. Why not bless "Who performed a miracle for me in this place" over miracles that do not part with the ways of nature?

When instituting the blessings, the sages stipulated that they be pronounce only over that which is concrete and tangible. For example, the Talmud teaches that this world is unlike the World to Come: in this world one blesses "Blessed is the Beneficent One Who does good" when one receives good news; however, when one receives bad news one blesses, "Blessed is the true judge." In the World to Come, though, one pronounces "Blessed is the Beneficent One Who does good" over both types of tidings. The reason for this is that in our world there appears to be good and bad, but in the World to Come we will understand that everything is for the best. Question: If somebody reaches a level whereupon he understands and truly believes that everything is for the best already in this world, shouldn't he be permitted to pronounce "Blessed is the Beneficent One who does good" even over things which seem bad?

The answer is that, as we have said, one does not bless over that which one embraces through faith alone, but upon that which one perceives through his senses. Hence, in order to bless "Who performed a miracle for me in this place" one must experience something which defies the laws of nature, which is perceivable to the eye and clearly evidences the hand of God.

Comparing the Pit to Joseph's Descent to Egypt
If we consider the nature of the miracle experienced by Joseph in the pit, it appears to be a precursor to everything which would later befall him in Egypt. Egypt is likened to a snake, as it is written, "...Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh King of Egypt, the great snake that lies in the midst of his rivers" (Ezekiel 29:3). In addition, the snake is the symbol of Egypt, and an image of a snake appears on the crown of Pharaoh. This may be the reason that Moses' staff was transformed into a snake before Pharaoh and ate the snakes of Pharaoh's sorcerers. This was an indication that the Kingdom of God would overpower the kingdom of Egypt. So, just as in the pit Joseph was put into a place that contained snakes and scorpions, so in Egypt he was put into a place that was likened to snakes and scorpions, in the face of all the "snakes" of Egypt which schemed to kill him. In Egypt, Joseph is thrown into the pit - the prison. And here too he is saved in a most unpredictable manner, leading to his rise to greatness and his position as viceroy to Pharaoh. All this came about because he was saved from the pit which was full of snakes.

Joseph's ability to withstand the spiritual trials which he faced in Egypt is also hinted at by his deliverance from the pit. It is well known that the Primordial Snake symbolizes sin; hence, Joseph's deliverance from a pit full of snakes symbolizes his saintliness and his capacity to overcome sin.

In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, Or HaChaim, poses the question: How did Reuven arrive at the conclusion that he would be able to save Joseph by throwing him into a pit full of snakes and scorpions? It would appear that such a step assured Joseph's demise more than it promised his salvation. Or HaChaim explains that "unlike man, who possesses free will and has the power to kill even a person who is not deserving of death, animals cannot kill a person unless it has been decreed from above." We find, then, that Reuven merely allowed Joseph's plight to be decided by God, and since Josef was a saint, the snakes could not harm him.

The Talmud relates how, once, R' Chaninah ben Dosa, when informed about a certain snake which had killed a number of people, went and stood by the opening of the snake's cove. The snake came out and, upon seeing the rabbi, died. Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa said, "It is not the snake that kills but the transgression that kills."

The snake in this anecdote symbolizes the Primordial Snake, the source of all debauchery which brought death to man. When man is clean of sin he "defeats" the snake. Therefore, the test of the pit symbolizes Joseph's ability to overcome all of the trials he faced in Egypt. He is Joseph the Righteous through and through.

The sages tell us that when a person dies and stands before the Heavenly Tribunal he is asked if he set aside fixed times to study Torah. If he answers, "My beauty caused me to be distracted by my evil inclination," they say to him, "You were not as beautiful as Joseph..." In other words, Joseph symbolizes the capacity to withstand trials.

We find, then, that everything which was destined to befall Joseph in Egypt, regarding both physical and spiritual salvation, was already hinted at in the fact that he merited deliverance from the pit. Therefore, when Joseph returned to the pit to to bless "Who performed a miracle for me in this place," he clearly intended to include even the natural miracles which he had experienced, over which, when taken alone, he would not have been able bless.

The Miracle of the Oil and the Military Victory
On Chanukah we give thanks for two types of miracles: (a) the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days, and (b) the military victory. If we look closely, we will find that the two are connected. The miracle of the oil was that a small amount of oil managed to burn for much longer that physically possible. This symbolizes the victory of the few over the many. The oil itself, being untainted and bearing the stamp of the High Priest, symbolizes the triumph of the Jewish spirit over Greek wisdom. However, as we have said, the blessing "Who performed miracles for our forefathers" applies only to revealed miracles. Therefore, it is pronounced over the candles. Clearly, though, our intention is to include the hidden miracle of the military victory in our blessing. Indeed, in the prayer following the lighting of the candles we say, "We light these candles because of the miracles and the wonders...and the wars which You performed for our ancestors.

The Site of the Miracle
The blessing "Who performed a miracle for me in this place" is different from the "gomel" blessing ("Blessed is He Who bestows favors on the undeserving and has shown me every kindness"). The latter is recited once, after a person has been spared from some danger. The former blessing, however, is recited every time a person returns to the site of the miracle. It makes explicit mention of "this place" because there is a special bond between a person and the place where a channel of hope was opened before him, and when he beholds the sight of this place he recalls the miraculous event, and God's original kindness is reawakened. This is the importance of returning to the site where one experienced a miracle. Therefore one must pronounce this benediction at the site of the miracle.

According to what we noted at the outset, the "Who performed miracles for our forefathers" blessing is defined as that which "a person recites when seeing a place where he once witnessed a miracle." This is the reason that the sages instituted the ordinance of lighting candles. It "recreates," if you will, the site of the miracle and thus allows us to bless as we do. Accordingly, one should have this in mind when lighting the Chanukah candles, and one should try to feel as if he is seeing the place of the miracle - the Temple Sanctuary and its menorah as it was lit in the days of the Hasmoneans. Our kindling of the Chanukah lights is tantamount to the lighting of the menorah in the Holy Temple - the site of the miracle. The Ramban thus writes: "God said to Moses, 'Go tell Aaron not to worry [that his tribe was not commanded to bring a sacrifice for the dedication of the altar]; I have greater things in store for him [for I will charge him with the responsibility of lighting the golden menorah]. After all, the sacrifices will be brought only so long as the Temple stands, but the candles will forever be lit.' This is an allusion to the kindling of the Chanukah candles in the days of the Hasmoneans, which continues to be practiced even after the Destruction of the Temple and during the Exile."

This indicates that our candles constitute, through the institution of rabbinic ordinance, a continuation of the fulfillment of the commandment which was once fulfilled in the Holy Temple. It is as if the kindling had never been discontinued. This being the case, when we light the Chanukah candles, it is as if we are lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple, and this is tantamount to being at the site of the miracle, where it is permissible to pronounce the "Who performed a miracle for me in this place" blessing.

The holy books tells us that when gazing upon the Chanukah candles, it is possible to merit seeing the mystical "hidden light." I.e., because the candles take us back to the place of the miracle, they stir us to see the hidden hand of God at work in nature. And since the candles of the menorah in the Temple were a source of Torah inspiration, when a person gazes upon them he merits inspiration, the ability to see the Torah's hidden inner light and to produce numerous novel Torah insights.

"Who performed miracles for our forefathers" on Purim.
There is, however, a certain obvious objection which may well have presented itself to the reader's mind. The "Who performed miracles for our forefathers" blessing is recited on another occasion during the course of the year - Purim. It would seem that on Purim this blessing is recited at neither the time nor the place of the miracle. So why was it instituted on this occasion at all?

We can resolve this difficulty by explaining that the reading of the Scroll of Ester, because it is one of the books of the Holy Scripture, serves to evoke a sense of the period. It is as if each year on Purim we experience the miracle anew. Because this is the case, it makes sense to pronounce this blessing. On Chanukah, however, this is not the case, for because it was not included in the canon of the Holy Scriptures the sages had to introduce the statute to light candles in order to pronounce the "Who performed miracles for our forefathers." May it be God's will that we merit witnessing both the physical and spiritual aspects of Divine salvation which are symbolized by the Chanukah candles, as it is written, "And for Your people Israel You wrought a great victory and salvation as this very day" (Al Hanisim Prayer).

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