On Chanukah, we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees and the miracle of the small jug of oil. In this resource, we’ll discuss what a miracle is and the tension between human actions and relying on miracles from heaven.

Resource Ages: 12-14


[We thank You also] for the miracles, the redemption, the mighty deeds, and the victories in battle which You performed for our ancestors in those days, at this time.

In the days of Matityahu, son of Yochanan, the High Priest, the Hasmonean, and his sons, the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and to force them to transgress the statutes of Your will. It was then that You in Your great compassion stood by them in the time of their distress. You championed their cause, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong. You 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 who were engaged in the study of Your Torah. You made for Yourself great and holy renown in Your world, and for your people Israel You performed a great salvation and redemption as of this very day.

Translation from the Koren Siddur
עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַנִּפְלָאוֹת וְעַל הַנֶּחָמוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה.
בִּימֵי מַתִּתְיָהוּ בֶּן יוֹחָנָן כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל חַשְׁמוֹנָאִי וּבָנָיו, כְּשֶׁעָמְדָה מַלְכוּת יָוָן הָרְשָׁעָה עַל עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַשְׁכִּיחָם תּוֹרָתָךְ וּלְהַעֲבִירָם מֵחֻקֵּי רְצוֹנָךְ. וְאַתָּה, בְּרַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים, עָמַדְתָּ לָהֶם בְּעֵת צָרָתָם: רַבְתָּ אֶת רִיבָם דַּנְתָּ אֶת דִּינָם נָקַמְתָּ אֶת נִקְמָתָם מָסַרְתָּ גִבּוֹרִים בְּיַד חַלָּשִׁים וְרַבִּים בְּיַד מְעַטִּים וּטְמֵאִים בְּיַד טְהוֹרִים וּרְשָׁעִים בְּיַד צַדִּיקִים וְזֵדִים בְּיַד עוֹסְקֵי תוֹרָתֶךָ וּלְךָ עָשִׂיתָ שֵׁם גָּדוֹל וְקָדוֹשׁ בְּעוֹלָמָךְ וּלְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשִׂיתָ תְּשׁוּעָה גְדוֹלָה וּפֻרְקָן כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.

We light these lights because of the miracles and wonders, deliverances, and victories You performed for our ancestors in those days at this time.

הַנֵּרוֹת הַלָּלוּ אָֽנוּ מַדְלִיקִין, עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַנִּפְלָאוֹת (וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמוֹת), שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְמַן הַזֶּה.

What is Chanukah […]

When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the menorah for only one day. A miracle occurred and it was sufficient to light the menorah for eight days. The following year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with prayers of praise and thanksgiving.

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do beliefs, ethics, or values influence different people’s behavior?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is a miracle? (What types of miracles are there? Does a miracle necessarily have to be something Divine?)
  • Is it right to rely on miracles?
  • Does believing in miracles minimize our own responsibility?

Background for Teacher

A miracle is a situation in which something unusual and unexpected occurs contrary to the laws of nature. Miracles are generally associated with a spiritual, supernatural force, like God. This unexpected intervention in the world leads to rescue, healing, victory, etc. In Jewish tradition,...

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A miracle is a situation in which something unusual and unexpected occurs contrary to the laws of nature. Miracles are generally associated with a spiritual, supernatural force, like God. This unexpected intervention in the world leads to rescue, healing, victory, etc. In Jewish tradition, a distinction is sometimes drawn between revealed miracles and hidden miracles. A revealed miracle involves a supernatural event, like the parting of the Red Sea. Hidden miracles are found in situations that proceed according to the rules of nature, but are traditionally attributed to God, like the daily functioning of a healthy human body or a particular chain of events. Commentators have offered different explanations for the relationship between miracles and the laws of nature. According to Maimonides, all miracles, even those that seem to go against the laws of nature (like the parting of the Red Sea or the earth swallowing up Korach and his followers) are actually derived from the laws of nature, because, in his view, when God created the world, God created it with the possibilities of these miracles built in.

The Sages ruled that despite the fact that miracles occur, individuals must not put themselves in dangerous situations, trusting that a miracle will come to save them. There are those who argue that this rule of not depending on miracles is not only a negative commandment — not to place one’s self in danger — but also sets out the principle that individuals must take an active role in the world to save themselves, protect their own health, etc., as opposed to trusting that miracles will happen for them.

According to the account in the Book of Maccabees and accounts from other sources, in 167 BCE, Antiochus IV, king of the Seleucid kingdom, issued decrees against the practice of Judaism in the Land of Israel, which was under his control at that time. He took over the Temple and installed a statue of the Greek god Zeus. The Jews, under the leadership of the Maccabees, launched a rebellion which, ultimately, led to the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel. During this rebellion, the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple. They purified it, removed all of the pagan altars, and prepared it for the service of God. They lit the Temple’s menorah and, for eight days, they celebrated the dedication (chanukah) of the Temple and its return to Jewish hands. To commemorate the miracle of the victory of the few over the many, the Maccabees established a holiday to be celebrated for eight days each year: the holiday of Chanukah.

In the Babylonian Talmud, which was written many years after the revolt, we find the first mention of the additional miracle that is celebrated on Chanukah: the miracle of the small jug of oil. According to the description in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 21b), the rebels could find only one small uncontaminated jug of oil for lighting the menorah. Despite the fact that there was only enough oil for one day, a miracle took place and this small amount of oil lasted for eight days. 

We commemorate this miracle by lighting Chanukah candles for eight days. After lighting the candles, it is customary to recite HaNerot Halalu, to note the relationship between the lighting of the candles and miracles. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, the prayer Al HaNissim is added to both the Amidah prayer and birkat hamazon (the grace after meals). In Al HaNissim, we mention the miracle of the Maccabees’ victory, but not the miracle of the jug of oil. The differences between the two miracles are related, among other things, to two different understandings of miracles. While the miracle of the small jug of oil was a revealed, heavenly miracle that went against the laws of nature and required no human involvement, the miracle of the Maccabees’ victory was a hidden miracle that did not necessarily violate any of the laws of nature. It involved the impressive activity of humans, including those who fought on the battlefield; the decision to view this victory as a miracle is a matter of faith.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • Tell the students about some amazing events. (You can bring examples from the Torah, from history, or from personal life.) Ask the students whether each event is or is not a miracle. How do we define a miracle? This activity can be done in small groups of three to four students each, with each group reaching a decision about whether or not each event is a miracle. A representative of each group can then present the group’s conclusions to the whole class.
  • Listen to this recording of HaNerot Halalu.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. In your own words, explain what a miracle is, what characterizes a miracle, and how we can determine whether or not a particular event is a miracle. Do you think that unexpected and significant coincidences are miracles? 
  2. The sources presented in this resource include two different stories that include descriptions of a miracle that occurred in the days of the Maccabees. What is the miracle in each story? In which story is the miracle clearer? What makes the miracle in the other story less clear? Do you think that both stories actually describe miracles?
  3. Explain two types of miracles: revealed miracles and hidden miracles. (See Background for Teacher.) Think about each of the miracles that we celebrate on Chanukah. What type of miracles are they?
  4. According to the Al HaNissim prayer, what could we have expected to happen in the battle between the Greeks and the Maccabees? Why? How could one describe the victory without a miracle?
  5. In the Book of Maccabees, which tells about the battles of the war, it says that the Maccabees acted on their own to achieve victory. Why do you think that they didn’t just wait for a miracle?
  6. Despite their belief in miracles and Divine intervention, the Sages ruled that we must not rely on miracles. What do you think they meant by this and why do you think that they made this rule?
  7. What is your personal inclination — would you prefer to wait for unexpected, external help or to act on your own? Why?
  8. Do you think that miracles really occur? If so, why? If not, why do you think that people believe in miracles?
  9. Can we rely on a miracle and act and take responsibility at the same time? If so, explain how.
  10. When someone doesn’t believe that any help will come from the outside, that person may feel overwhelmed or alone. On the other hand, they may also feel a sense of power, autonomy and capability. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the different ways of coping: relying on a miracle or acting alone? What advice would you give to someone who prefers to rely on miracles? What advice would you give to someone who prefers to act on their own?
  11. Our Sages taught: “One who sees a place where miracles were done for the Jewish people says: ‘Blessed is God who performed miracles for our ancestors in this place’” (Mishna, Tractate Brachot 9:1).
    Why do you think we are told to make a blessing over a miracle that was done for someone else in the past and not only over miracles done for us?
  • On Chanukah, it is appropriate to share stories of personal miracles. Divide the students into small groups or pairs and ask them to share stories of miracles that they experienced or that were experienced by someone close to them. These could be natural ‘miracles’ like a surprising coincidence. As a class, discuss how we decide to define something as a miracle. Do we need to believe in God in order to believe in miracles?
  • Ask the students to write a script of a meeting between two Maccabees, one who personally witnessed the miracle of the jug of oil and one who participated in the capture of the Temple from the Greeks. How would each of these characters describe the miracle that they personally witnessed? Alternatively, write a letter from a soldier on the battlefield in which the soldier describes the miracles to his family.
  • To learn more about the holiday, study the unit Story of the Holiday and read the Talmudic source from the tractate Shabbat.
  • Share the following folk tale about miracles with the students:
    A story is told about a man who was about to drown in the sea and called out to God to send a miracle to save him. Suddenly, a boat came by. The captain saw the drowning man and threw him a life-saving ring. The man refused to take it, because he believed that a miracle from heaven would come to save him. A little later, a group of rescuers arrived, but he refused their help and waited for a miracle. A little later, a helicopter came and sent down a ladder to him, but the man was set in his stubbornness and his faith and he refused the helicopter’s help. In the end, the man drowned. When he got to heaven, he approached God and angrily asked, “Why didn’t you send me a miracle?” God smiled at him and said, “I sent you several miracles: the boat, the rescuers, even a helicopter. But, you also need to help yourself and accept the help.”
    Ask the students what they think about the man’s behavior. Is he correct in claiming that no miracle was done for him? What can we learn from this story about the popular understanding of miracles and the narrator’s idea of what constitutes a miracle?
  • Watch this performance of Al HaNissim and learn the tune.