Working the system

Why doesn’t Hashem do more miracles?

By: Aron Ziegler

The gemara asks[1], “What is Chanukah?” and it answers, “Our Sages taught…when the Greeks entered the sanctuary (of the Temple), they defiled all the oils, and when the kingdom of the House of the Chashmonaim overpowered and defeated them, they checked and only found one jar of oil that was left with the seal of the Kohen Gadol. There was only enough oil in (the jar) to light (the Menorah) for one day, but a miracle was done with it and they lit from it for eight days. The (following) year, (the Sages) set and fixed those days as Yom Tov days in as much as Hallel and praises (Rashi: Al HaNissim) should be recited on them.”

An odd question

It seems odd that the Talmud would pose such a question, “What is Chanukah?” The Talmud very often assumes that its readers are familiar with all types of background information, some of it very advanced and even obscure. So certainly, when it comes to our national history and especially such a significant event in our national history as the overthrowing of the Greek Empire’s rule in Israel and over the Temple, the Talmud should expect its readers to be very much aware of such information, as we know very well that the Greeks were one of the four world powers that dominated over us.

We also know that, more generally, the Greek Empire wished to encourage the Jewish people to adopt their approach to life and that it was the small group of Chashmonaim who resisted and who were victorious over the Greeks, ultimately restoring Jewish sovereignty in our land. We also know (as is formulated in the Al HaNissim prayer) that all this was with Hashem’s help – “Giving the mighty (Greeks) into the hands of the weak (Hashmonaim), and the more numerous (Greek forces) into the hand of the few (Chashmonaim), and the impure (Greeks) into the hands of the pure (Chashmonaim), and the wicked (Greeks) into the hand of the righteous (Chashmonaim), and the malicious (Greeks) into the hand of those who were involved with Your Torah (Chashmonaim)”. So, why would the Talmud feel the need to ask and then spell out in such a matter-of-fact way the chronicle of the Chanukah story for a Talmudic student?

An easy answer

We can suggest an obvious answer: All of our other national festivals are recorded and instructed in Tanach, but Chanukah, which took place during the period of the Second Temple, after the period of prophetic books of Tanach, does not have an eternal record in our scriptures. Therefore, the Talmud, in its discussing the laws of lighting the candles on Chanukah, wished to mention it in a clear way, abruptly introducing the discussion with the rhetorical question, “What is Chanukah?” after which it presents an officially recorded statement that, in no ambiguous terms, sets out the Chanukah narrative for us.

More to the story

There is more that we can learn and extract from this segment of gemara. Rashi comments on this question of the gemara, “What is Chanukah?” – “on what miracle did they fix it?” Rashi is explaining that the question of the gemara is not simply, “What is the story of Chanukah?” but actually what the gemara is intending to ask is: Over what miracle, which must have taken place among the various events of the Chanukah story, did our Sages see fit to declare the national festival of Chanukah and institute the saying of Hallel and praises of Al HaNissim?

All systems check

To appreciate what Rashi means by his comment we need some background knowledge.

Hashem is The Source and Origin of everything and, therefore, everything is ultimately attributable back to Him. This was shown to us at the Revelation at Har Sinai, “You were shown to know that Hashem – He is Elokim – there is nothing else besides Him.”[2] However, there are various systems that Hashem has constructed and has authorised and set up to function over different parts and elements of the world. In creating our physical world, we understand that Hashem created various systems that operate simultaneously within it and which are rooted in the Divine will of Hashem who created these systems and maintains them.

One such system is the system of nature, including natural laws, such as those found in physics and chemistry. These systems can be deciphered and studied, and have predictable outcomes. For example, fire burns wood, reducing it to ashes. We say that it was the natural force and power of the fire and the natural susceptibility of the wood to such a force that brought about the resultant combustion of the wood and its ultimate disintegration. We would not say immediately that it was Hashem who directly disintegrated and vaporised the wood back to its molecular components and who made the fire flare stronger and larger. This is technically a miracle, but since it is taking place within the mechanisms of the system of natural laws, it is a concealed and hidden miracle, rather than an open or revealed miracle. The more science discovers and deciphers in these systems that Hashem put into operation, the more we will understand and be able to manipulate events.

Wilfully doing it

Another of these systems that Hashem has set in a position of power to effect change and govern over certain forces and aspects of the world is human will. As far as we are able, we can, with our free will, manipulate the conditions of the physical world to an enormous degree in bringing about change, healing, improvement, and innovations of all sorts based upon our understanding of the systems that Hashem created. This is an essential and fundamental point in our belief in moral values and reward and punishment.[3] If our behaviour is entirely instinctual (natural) and pre-destined or pre-programmed and not within our control then we could not fairly be held responsible for our ‘wrong doings’, nor would our making amends and improving our ways be credited to us and be considered teshuva (returning to Hashem), nor would we be rewarded or credited for our good choices, as they would not be ‘choices’, never mind our own choices.

Combining forces

Building upon our previous example, if someone were to set fire to another person’s piece of wood, then we can hold the arsonist responsible for his actions and even hold him liable to reimburse his fellow for the damage caused or, perhaps, find him deserving of punishment. We would not say immediately that it was Hashem who directly set fire to the wood. We would blame and attribute the event to the person who did it. But, afterwards, we must, as intelligent, believing Jews, attribute the event back to Hashem as being the Primary cause behind all the forces and factors at play collectively. But, since Hashem gave dominion and power to the person to freely manipulate the natural forces he used to set fire to the other person’s piece of wood, we can attribute the burning of the wood to the one who did it, because of his free-will intent and action. The above examples (namely natural forces and human free will) are examples of secondary causes that are considered responsible for bringing about events and occurrences in our physical world.[4]

What about miracles?

We should point out that, in reality, everything (as mentioned above) originates entirely and only from Hashem – so there is, from this aspect, no difference between events that happen, since any and every event has the same ultimate origin. However, as human beings living in a physical world, we encounter events as stemming from different levels of causes in the hierarchy of Hashem’s systems to which He has made us subject. Those events and occurrences, which we must initially attribute to secondary causes (such as nature and human free-will), we technically can also call miracles, as they also originate from Hashem and are creations of His from utter nothingness. This is indeed nothing less than miraculous. But this type of miracle would more accurately be called a ‘hidden miracle’. It is not so much that the miracle is itself hidden, but rather that Hashem (the Real and ultimate Source and Creator of the miracle) is hidden from us, as the event clearly appears to be coming from a secondary source and a seemingly independent system (for example, nature or human free will), and this, that the occurrence is indeed a miracle (stemming ultimately from Hashem Himself), is what is hidden about it.[5]

Open miracles

In contrast to hidden miracles, open or revealed miracles are events or occurrences that we cannot attribute to any system or secondary cause that exists or that is detectable to us. It has no explanation and we have no knowledge of any system that we can use to account for such an event having taken place. Therefore, we attribute the event or occurrence directly to The Source and Origin of all existence – Hashem Himself. So, although Hashem has made systems that he has set to govern the world, He reserves the right to interrupt and interfere with those systems via a direct miracle at any stage of creation.[6]

Hashem doesn’t like doing miracles

We find, however, that Hashem generally does not wish to perform open miracles, and prefers to not interrupt the natural workings of our world.

When Hashem sent Shmuel to go and anoint one of the sons of Yishai as the next king of Israel, Shmuel Hanavi asked, “How can I go? If Shaul (the present reigning king) hears, he will (consider my anointing a new king while he is still reigning as an act of treason and he will) kill me?”[7] Rather than Hashem simply assuring Shmuel that He would guarantee his safety (even if it would entail supernatural intervention), Hashem instructed Shmuel to use a ruse to disguise his visit to Beis Lechem and to “take along a calf and to say I have come to sacrifice to Hashem”.

We also find this very clearly by Yaakov. After Hashem had instructed him to return to the land of his fathers, assuring him that He would be with him[8], and that he should return to his homeland and He will do good to him[9], and Hashem had promised him that He would grow his seed to countless multitudes[10], Yaakov nevertheless used every means at his disposal in order to deal with the threatening situation involving his brother, Eisav. Yaakov prepared elaborate gifts to try and placate Eisav, and also prepared for war in case of conflict breaking out. Even though Hashem assured Yaakov of his well-being, Yaakov did not simply rely on Hashem’s ability to intervene supernaturally and make good on His assurances and promises. Likewise, our sages instruct us[11] that a person should not put himself into a dangerous position and say that a miracle will be performed for him, as perhaps a miracle won’t be done for him, and, if it is done, it will be deducted from his merits.

Aren’t miracles good things?

But, it would seem to the contrary. If a miracle would take place for someone, that person would surely be seen or considered to be a holy individual through whom Hashem wished to manifest a personal appearance of His mighty and miraculous power to the world. So, why should the Talmud say that if a miracle is performed for someone then they deduct merits from him? Surely Hashem performing open miracles is a glorious Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of His name) that we should wish and hope for as much as possible?

However, if we look at the concept of an open miracle, we just as strongly can deduce a counter argument. Hashem is not limited in any way. So, what prevented Him from creating this physical world in a more perfect way, where he would not need to perform any miracles at all? The systems that He made could be tweaked and adjusted to be so perfect that He would have no need at any time to intervene ‘Personally’ with open miracles? If the world is in need of frequent interventions and adjustments by Hashem then this implies that Hashem’s original design and set-up was actually not so brilliant and not so ‘very good’[12] after all.

A flawed system?

This also explains a discussion[13] in the Talmud. It once happened that a man’s nursing wife passed away and he did not have funds to hire a wet nurse. A miracle occurred and his own breasts produced milk to suckle his child. Rav Yosef commented how great this fellow is that such a miracle was done for him. Abaye said to Rav Yosef, on the contrary, how menial or un-prestigious he is, as the works of Bereishis (natural creation systems) were changed on his account. In other words, when we are made aware of Hashem performing a Personal intervention in the physical world, it is actually not necessarily a promotion of Hashem’s name in the world, but instead it can imply that the systems that Hashem put in place to manage the world were not so perfect, as a further adjustment was still required for Him to intervene by coming and Personally overriding or performing a miracle to set things right. Therefore, a person who invokes the performance of a miracle is not necessarily considered a holy person or to have brought about a Kiddush Hashem.

Boosting awareness

At the very same time, however, it is also true that Hashem wishes to sometimes boost the awareness of His presence and power and reputation in the world and this He does by occasionally performing open miracles. As, for example, Hashem performed many miracles for the Bnei Yisrael in Egypt and in the wilderness, etc., “so that I can put my signs … and so that you will tell in the ears of your son and grandson this that I made mockery with Egypt and (relate about) My signs that I placed in them and you will know that I am Hashem”.[14]

Only on specific occasions, when people have forgotten and don’t know Hashem, does Hashem interrupt his systems of nature, in order to educate and remind the world of His Presence. When people are no longer able to see beyond the systems of nature and to realise that there is Hashem who constructed and created them, that is when Hashem occasionally wishes to utilise the mechanism of open miracles and He personally will intervene and show Himself in overriding the apparently all-powerful systems that people erroneously credit with governing the world. This was the case, for example, by the plagues in Egypt and the exodus, the miraculous splitting of the sea and miracles in the wilderness, and also the miracle of the destruction of Korach and his followers. Only where there is a need for Hashem to establish and remind us of His presence does He wish to perform supernatural phenomena in this world.

Understanding the gemara

And now we can understand the gemara asking, “What is Chanukah?” as Chanukah was indeed an event that involved salvations and battles which were certainly miraculous, but they were still, ultimately, manifested in natural ways with combat strategies and armoured confrontations and not in the openly miraculous overriding supernatural manifestations of Hashem’s involvement (as opposed to Egypt, when the Jews literally didn’t need to lift a finger against the Egyptians).

So, even though Chanukah was undoubtedly a miraculous event, it did not necessarily warrant the saying of Hallel. Therefore, the Gemara asks, “What is Chanukah?” and Rashi explains for us what the gemara’s question is: “Over what miracle did they set the festival?” And the gemara’s answer tells us about the open supernatural miracle of the oil lasting longer than it naturally should have, and that’s why in a following year (note: not that very year – the year that they vanquished the Greeks, but later) they set eight days as a time of Hallel and praise.

The open miracle of the oil lasting for eight days was a reinforcing manifestation of Hashem’s Supreme control over the forces of nature. Our Sages realised that this was an occasion where Hashem was intentionally revealing Himself to us in this world and it warranted Hallel and praise. This rare, open revelation of Hashem’s presence needed to be enlarged and built upon so that we could learn from its message and strengthen our emunah and awareness of Him and so they ordained for us that we should annually mark this event and publicise the open miracle and, thereby, aggrandise Hashem’s Great Name.

Perpetual awe

We can understand that Hashem actually does not want that we be perpetually astonished and stunned by the myriad of miracles that happen constantly throughout each and every day, as Hashem has deliberately made it that we encounter this world in a stable and physical way under the reliable systems that He set and appointed to run and manage it. He wants us to again and again return to Him and re-attribute the events of our physical world to him perpetually and continuously through the maze of His camouflage of systems and secondary causes and forces that He has set to manage the world. In this way, we will be ‘bringing Hashem’s Presence’ into the world and into our lives, rather than Hashem blatantly manifesting His Presence to us. But, He will occasionally give us a boost and flash of inspiration, a reminder of His presence and, in response, we need to show and declare our acknowledgement, by harnessing and broadcasting that precious glimpse by remembering the miracles and salvations that were done for us “in those days at this time”, and by publicising these miracles, thereby making His Name great again.[15]

Based upon Sefer HaMaor She’baTorah by Rabbi Yaakov M. Lessin, zt”l, 1889-1975, Masgiach Ruchani of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary


Aron Ziegler has learned for over 15 years at the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, including five years full-time. He was among the first students of Hirsch Lyons School. For more than 10 years, he served as the spiritual leader of the Kensington Hebrew Congregation. He regularly leins at the Doornfontein Lions Shul Shabbos Morning Minyan and also leads a learning group weekday mornings at Cyrildene Shul. He strives, in the words of his beloved Rosh Yeshivah’s rebbe, to be a ‘Torah Jew’.

  1. Shabbos 21b
  2. Devarim 4:35, see Rashi
  3. Devarim 30:15-19 see Rambam – Shemona Perakim 8 and Hilchos Teshuva 5:1-4
  4. Kuzari 5:20
  5. See Ramban Shemos 13:16, and in his introduction to Iyov
  6. See Malbim to Tehillim 77:18
  7. 1 Shmuel 16:2
  8. Bereishis 31:3
  9. Bereishis 32:10
  10. Bereishis 32:13
  11. Shabbos 32a
  12. Bereishis 1:31
  13. Shabbos 53b
  14. See Ramban Shemos 13:16
  15. See Ramban Shemos 13:16; also Malbim in explanation of Mitzvos referred to by the terms Eidos and Pekudim, eg. Tehillim 119

Related posts