A Thought on Al HaNissim
I’ve been asked several times already this week by non-Jewish people I have encountered about Chanukah services. Because our Festival of Lights occurs during December in close proximity (or this year overlapping with) the Christmas holiday, there is a tendency to look for similarities between the two very different holidays. For Christians, who may not be weekly church goers, Christmas and Easter bring people to their houses of worship in large numbers somewhat like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for us. Thus the question arises, since there are eight days of Chanukah, do we have major services for eight days running. I try to explain that Chanukah tends to be primarily a home festival with lighting of candles and eating of special foods of the season, a time for parties and celebration. Those synagogues that have regular daily services do indeed add special prayers on Chanukah and have a special Chanukah Torah reading, but I’m afraid that attendance is not noticeably larger than it is the rest of the year.
In the Torah we find mention of five major festivals, days when work is prohibited and special observances are to be followed: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot (including Shemini Atzeret), Pesach, and Shavuot. There are two other significant holidays based on events after the conclusion of the Torah which are considered by comparison minor holidays and do not have a general prohibition on labor. These are Purim and Chanukah. While these two winter holidays have different observances associated with them, they have a number of liturgical similarities. In both cases they are referred to not as Chagim (holidays) but simply as Yamim (days) as in Y’mei HaChanukah, and Y’mei HaPurim, the days of Chanukah and the days of Purim.
The central observance on Purim is the reading of Megillat Esther, the scroll of Esther containing the Purim story. On Chanukah, of course, the main observance is the lighting of the candles in the Chanukiah, the Chanukah menorah. In both cases the observance is preceded by the recitation of b’rachot, of blessings. The first blessing is the standard form for a prayer before performing a mitzvah, Praised are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe who has sanctified us through mitzvoth and commanded us to do X. In the case of the Megillah, we conclude al mikra megillah, concerning the reading of the Megillah and on Chanukah we end with l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah, to light the lights of Chanukah. In both cases we follow this first blessing with the blessing of She-asah nissim la-avoteinu, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this season. On Purim and on the first night of Chanukah, we add a third blessing of thanksgiving for reaching this season, the Shehecheyanu, thanking God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this season.
Another similarity between the two holidays is the addition both to the Amidah, the primary prayer of our daily services and to the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, of the passage beginning with Al HaNissim, for the miracles. The opening lines of this prayer are the same for both holidays. Both in the Amidah and in Birkat HaMazon, this prayer is introduced into a section that focuses on thanksgiving to God for the miracles that we experience in our daily lives. Thus having begun to offer thanks, we now on these occasions, add our thanks for the more unusual miracles that occurred in ancient times at this season. The prayer begins with thanks for “the miracles, the redemption, the mighty deeds, and the victories in battle which You [God] performed for our ancestors in those days at this time.” Some versions of the prayer add the letter vav, “and” before “at this time” and thus we thank God not only for past miracles at this season, but for miracles that we experience in our own time.
After this introduction, the prayer provides two versions, one for Chanukah and the other for Purim, detailing some of the miraculous events associated with each holiday. There are several versions that have been suggested for another Al HaNissim for Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day which seems equally miraculous to us in our time. It is interesting to note that the Al HaNissim prayer for Chanukah focuses primarily on the military victory of the Maccabees rather than on the rabbinic legend of the miraculous cruse of oil. We thank God for “delivering 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 who were engaged in the study of Your Torah.” The prayer mentions the cleansing of the Temple and the kindling of lights without reference to any miracles associated with the lighting of the Temple’s menorah. These eight days of Chanukah, according to this prayer are designated as “days for giving thanks and praise to Your great name.” Incorporating this passage into the Amidah and the Birkat HaMazon is the thanks part. The praise is in the daily addition of the Hallel psalms to the morning service throughout the holiday. The recitation of the Hallel is one area where Chanukah differs from Purim. We do not say Hallel on Purim and the rabbis explain the omission by telling us that the reading of the Megillah substitutes for the Hallel psalms.“The Megillah is its praise.”
These prayers remind us that the greatest miracles are the ones we experience every day, the gift of life itself is miraculous and every aspect of our being is reason to offer thanks and praise to a benevolent God. The entire system of b’rachot, the daily blessings, is designed to help us take time out to recognize God’s creation and offer thanks for all that we have and all that we are. The sages urge us to recite one hundred blessings a day and that is not hard to do between the blessings in our daily liturgy and the short prayers before and after eating and drinking among others. Recognizing God’s power in the little things makes it self-evident when great victories and salvation occur that they are not to be attributed solely to our own efforts, but these too are reasons to offer thanks to the Almighty who watches over His people and performs wondrous acts in those days and at this time, bayamim ha-hem uvizman hazeh.