2017-12-06 / Religion Column

Chanukah reminds us that miracles occur every day

Chabad Lubavitch of Camden & Burlington Counties

Excitement is in the air. Chanukah is soon upon us! Gifts, donuts, latkes, parties, and, of course, the nightly lighting of the menorah.

The Chanukah menorah has eight branches (plus a slightly offset branch for the shamash, “servant,” candle). We light the menorah to commemorate a spectacular miracle that involved the menorah in the Holy Temple following the Maccabean victory over the occupying Syrian-Greek forces.

But the Temple Menorah had only seven branches, so why do we commemorate a miracle that transpired with the seven-branch menorah by lighting an eight-branch candelabra?

You know the answer—we have eight candles because Chanukah is eight days long. Why eight days? Because the oil that naturally would have fueled the menorah for only one day miraculously lasted for eight. You might remember that from Hebrew school.

But does that make sense? After all, if there was sufficient oil to burn for one day, then the miracle of the oil spanned only seven days. Logically, then, it would seem that we should celebrate Chanukah for only seven days, while lighting a seven-branch menorah. Or, in different words, why do we celebrate the first day, if nothing out of the ordinary occurred on that day?

This question is as old as the holiday itself, and it has long bothered Jewish scholars. Many answers have been suggested. (Back in the day, I saw a book that compiled answers to this question. It contained 250 answers, the numerical value of the Hebrew word ner, “candle.”) Most of the answers demonstrate how, indeed, some sort of miracle transpired on the first day of Chanukah, too. I would like to propose, however, that the answer lies not in finding the miracle that happened on the first day of the holiday, but in redefining the word miracle.

A fascinating episode recounted in the Talmud (Taanit 25a) will “illuminate” the matter:

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, a first-century sage, was a renowned miracle worker. Shortly after sunset one Friday evening, he noticed his daughter sobbing. She explained to her father that she had mistakenly lit the Shabbat candles with vinegar instead of oil. Rabbi Chanina was extremely destitute, so presumably, the family did not have much to enjoy on the Shabbat other than the peaceful glow of the candles. Rabbi Chanina comforted his daughter: “Do not be troubled, my dear. The One who instructed oil to burn will instruct the vinegar to burn…” Needless to say, the candles did not go out. In fact, they burned until the following night, when they kindled the havdalah candle from the Shabbat candle flames.

I find this story so striking because Rabbi Chanina didn’t say, “Watch! I’m going to perform a miracle!” The wording he used indicates that in his view, vinegar fueling a flame was no more miraculous than oil fueling a flame. Why is that? If a miracle is defined as divine intervention in personal or national affairs, then every phenomenon is miraculous— for everything that occurs is a direct result of Gd’s intervention. The difference then between the “natural” and the “miraculous” is a matter of frequency: G-d regularly intervenes to make oil burn, whereas He rarely does so for vinegar. But one is not intrinsically more abnormal or supernatural than the other.

Nevertheless, we treasure miracles (as they are traditionally defined) and we institute holidays to commemorate the more consequential ones. We cherish those precious moments in history when G-d overtly came to our rescue, when the veil was lifted and G-d’s providence was revealed for all to see. Yes, the holy Rabbi Chanina had the ability to see through the veil every day, but we don’t. To us, vinegar burning is a remarkable sight to behold.

Once the veil has been temporarily lifted, the recognition that G-d’s Hand directs all that occurs doesn’t fade even after the veil is restored. After witnessing vinegar burning, we realize that oil’s ability to burn is also a result of G-d’s command.

I believe that this also explains why we celebrate eight days of Chanukah: The seven overtly miraculous days brought us to understand that the first day was no less miraculous and is also worthy of commemorating and celebrating.

On this upcoming first day of Chanukah, let us all take this message to heart and resolve to see G-d’s providence in our lives, even in those areas that seem very natural and mundane. 

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