Purim, Pesach and Chanukah all have something in common. They all involve miracles. Yet, on Pesach, the holiday with the most remarkable miracles: the ten plagues, the splitting of a sea, a movable pillar of fire, etc., we do not recite Al HaNissim. Why? What is it about Purim and Chanukah that warrants Al HaNissim, while Pesach does not? The answer lies in the different nature of the miracles that occurred on those days.
Purim is, often, called a holiday of concealed miracles, while, Chanukah is a holiday of revealed miracles. But is this really the case? Certainly, Purim is a holiday of concealed miracles. Hashem’s name does not appear in Megillat Esther. The name, Esther, is itself related to the Hebrew word, “Astir, to conceal.”
Chanukah, on the other hand, is said to be holiday of revealed miracles. In defiance of natural law, oil that should only last for one day lasts for eight days. A revealed miracle. The victory against the Assyrian-Greeks was also a miracle. As Al HaNissim states, Hashem “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous and the arrogant into the hands of those engaged with Your Torah.” Yet, can we truly call these events revealed miracles? Consider the miracle of the oil.
Who saw the miracle of a small quantity of oil lasting for eight days? Where was the Menorah kept? It was kept in the innards of the Beit Hamikdash. Who saw it? The Kohanim saw the Menorah. Some Levi’im saw the Menorah. The general population did not see the Menorah. They did not see the miracle of the oil. For all intents and purposes, the miracle of the oil was a concealed miracle. And what of the war?
At first, the Hashmonaim’s victory over the Assyrian-Greeks was an undisputed miracle. Yet, as time wore on the victory was explained away. The Hashmonaim were engaging in guerrilla warfare, they had the support of the indigenous population, they knew the terrain better, the Assyrian-Greeks’ supply lines were stretched. … There were rational explanations. Something similar occurred in our days. Immediately after the Six Day War, everyone acknowledged a miracle. There was no other explanation. Not only did the Israelis win, but they did it in six days. Yet, as time went on and not much time at that, in fact even before the eve of the Yom Kippur War, many no longer considered this victory a miracle. There were other explanations: better tactics, better training, a slight technological edge, the element of surprise. … The Six Day War became unusual but not miraculous. It is not hard to imagine the same thing occurring two thousand years ago.
Al HaNissim, for both Chanukah and for Purim, focuses on the divine intervention that takes place via “normal events.” In other words, it focuses on concealed miracles. This is why the Al HaNissim for Chanukah does not mention the miracle of the oil. That was an unquestionable revealed act of divine intervention. On the other hand, the Chanukah military victory passed on to become a concealed miracle. This was concealed due to the popular view that it was just a natural event. So, we recite Al HaNissim to remind ourselves that it really was otherwise.
We recite Al HaNissim to remind ourselves of the hand of God even in seemingly normal events. This then, explains why we do not recite Al HaNissim on Pesach. The miracles of Pesach defy rational explanation. The ten plagues, the splitting of the Yam Suf; these are all revealed miracles. We do not need to remind ourselves that the events of Pesach were the revealed outstretched arm of Hashem intervening in history.
This also explains why we recite Al HaNissim alongside the Modim prayer of Shemoneh Esrei. In Modim, we thank Hashem for “miracles that are with us each day and for Your wonders and Your goodness that occur at every moment, evening, morning and afternoon.” We thank Hashem for those miracles, those signs of His existence and benevolence, which we take for granted. We thank Him, essentially, for the smooth running of the universe, for the events which some say happen simply as a result of the laws of nature. These laws are, of course, themselves His handiwork.
So, why do we say Al HaNissim in Birkat Hamazon? Food is also something we take for granted. We do not tend to think of food as a miracle. Consider, however, how we come by something as basic as bread. We bury a seed in the dirt, it decays, grows into a stalk, we break that apart, remove the kernel, grind it up, produce a powder, add water, let it sit and expand, apply heat and from here, we get bread and all manner of pastries. What is this process, if not a miracle? Only in times of want orin times of famine, do we truly appreciate the miracle of food and sustenance. So, it is fitting to include Al HaNissim in Birkat Hamazon. If we fail to consider food a miracle, then, Al HaNissim helps remind us that it is such. If on the other hand, we bear in mind the miraculous nature of food, the insertion of Al HaNissim focuses our attention on the fact that the events of the Chanukah victory and Purim, which some consider just the results of a normal process, are, in fact, the result of God’s intervention.
Yet another reason for inserting Al HaNissim into Birkat Hamazon, is that all of us, men and women, need to be cognizant of God’s constant intervention. Although women, according to some, may have limited prayer obligations, they are obligated to say Birkat Hamazon. By inserting Al HaNissim in Birkat Hamazon makes certain that women will also be reminded of Hashem’s involvement. Concomitantly, it reminds us of women’s special involvement in the events of Chanukah and Purim.
The greatest Chanukah battle was not against the Assyrian-Greeks but against the Hellenistic Jews; those Jews who sought to forget Hashem and erase Him from their consciousness. The Hebrew word for miracle is “nes.” Literally, “nes” means banner. A “nes,” a miracle, is an event serving to proclaim, like a banner, that Hashem is involved in and controls the world. How ironic that efforts to erase Hashem only served to proclaim Him. How ironic, that today Chanukah is celebrated even by Jews who are largely assimilated or aggressively secular. Chanukah should be the festival they most avoid. The fact that they embrace Chanukah can reassure us that deep inside every Jew is something that recognizes and must proclaim Hashem. It is our mission to reveal to them this hidden aspect.
By William S.J. Fraenkel
William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU. He has served for a number of years as the president and board member of the Young Israel of Harrison, New York (YIOH). The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.