Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Chanukah 5781: Asking for Miracles on Chanukah

Note: most of my blog posts are written for general audiences, but this one required so much background in halachic practice and terminology that I decided to address it to those who are already familiar. For this reason, I've only translated and explained a small portion of the terms and halachic jargon. Had I attempted to maintain my usual style, the post would be cluttered and distracting.

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Artwork: Candlelight Vigil, by Alexander Forssberg

Chanukah 5781: Asking for Miracles on Chanukah 

Requesting Miracles at the End of Al Ha’Nissim 

On Chanukah we recite the Al ha’Nissim paragraph in the berachos of hodaah (thanksgiving) in the Shemoneh Esrei and Birkas ha’Mazon. The standard text of Al Ha’Nissim found in most Ashkenazic siddurim concludes with the following line: 

And they established these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and to praise Your great name. 

However, there is another version of Al ha’Nissim which concludes in a radically different manner. Here is the conclusion of Al ha’Nissim in the Rambam’s [1] siddur: 

And You made for Yourself a great name in Your world, and for your people Israel you did a wonder and miracles. Just as You did miracles and mighty acts for them, so too, do miracles and mighty acts with us, at this time and season. 

We will henceforth refer to this bakashah (request) with the shorthand phrase k’shem (“just as”). This bakashah will likely seem strange to those who haven’t encountered it before. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the version of Al ha’Nissim with k’shem is more authentic than the version without it. 

The earliest written siddur was compiled by Rav Amram Gaon [2] (9th century). While the version of his siddur we have today is riddled with inaccuracies and later emendations, the Rishonim testify that his siddur included a version of the bakashah of k’shem. Here is what the critical edition of his siddur says: 

And they established these eight days of Chanukah with praise and thanksgiving to Your name. And just as You did a miracle with them, so too, do with us, Hashem our God, miracles and wonders at this time, and we will give thanks to Your great name, Selah. 

Likewise, the siddur of Saadia Gaon [3] (10th century) includes a version of the bakashah

And they established eight days of praise and thanksgiving to Your name. And just as You did miracles for the earlier [generations], so too, do [miracles] for the later [generations], and save us in these days like [You did] in those days. 

Indeed, it appears that the bakashah of k’shem dates back at least to the time that the “minor tractate” of Masechet Soferim was composed (estimated to be in the 8th century), as can be seen in 20:7: 

We say in [the berachah of] Thanksgiving: “and thanks for the wonders and salvation of Your Kohanim which You have wrought in the days of Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohen Gadol, and the Chashmonaim, his sons. So too, do with us, Hashem our God and the God of our forefathers, miracles and wonders, and we will give thanks to Your name forever. 

The bakashah also appears in the writings of the majority of those Rishonim who recorded their views on the proper nusach ha’tefilah, such as the Machzor Vitry, Abudirham, Ri Bar Yakar, Rokeach, and Kol Bo. It is also found in the nuschaos of many other ancient communities around the globe, such as Yemen, Castile, Persia, Aram Zobah, and Rome. 

Not only is the inclusion of this bakashah rooted in the most authentic and authoritative versions of the nusach ha’tefilah, but it is also sanctioned by the leading halachic authorities followed by many Ashkenazic Jews today. Rav Yosef Karo [4], author of the Beit Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch, rules in both of his works that one may include this bakashah if one so desires, and the Rema [5], the leading halachic authority for Ashkenazim, does not dispute his ruling. The Mishnah Berurah [6] cites the Beit Yosef’s psak without providing any dissenting views from later Achronim. The Aruch ha’Shulchan [7] the inclusion of k’shem, saying that it was the custom in his community to say it. 

Considering the fact that the bakashah of k’shem enjoys the support of the majority of halachic authorities and likely reflects the original nusach ha’tefilah established by the Anshei Kneses ha’Gedolah, one must wonder: Why don't Ashkenazim say it? What does the opposition say?

The Leaders of the Opposition 

One of the earliest arguments against the inclusion of k’shem is advanced by the Maharam of Rothenberg [8] and the Sefer ha’Manhig [9] who write that one shouldn’t say it because “there shouldn’t be tefilah (i.e. requests) in hodaah (thanksgiving).” The middle berachos of the Shemoneh Esrei are the appropriate place for requests, but Modim is reserved for giving thanks, as the Gemara in Berachos 34a states: 

Rav Yehuda said: A person should never ask for his needs in the first three or the last three [berachos], but in the middle [berachos], for Rebbi Chanina said: the first three [berachos] are like a servant who arranges praises before his master, the middle [berachos] are like a servant who asks for a portion from his master, and the last three [berachos] are like a servant who has received a gift from his master and excuses himself and goes on his way. 

This line of reasoning is roundly attacked, both by those who disagree with their conclusion and even by those who agree. The Abudirham [10], who holds we should include k’shem, writes that “since it is for the needs of the many, one can say it.” He cites numerous examples where we do this: adding “u’khesov l’chayim tovim etc.” (“inscribe us for good life”) during the Aseres Ymei Teshuvah, incorporating “kein yegieinu etc.” (“so bring us”) into the blessing of hodaah at the end of the Magid section of the Haggadah, saying “kein techayeinu etc.” (“so bring us life”) in Modim de’Rabbanan. This same counterargument is echoed by the Meiri [11] who adds that “since the principal portion is hodaah, a little tefilah can’t hurt.” 

The Baalei Tosafos (Megilah 4a) are much harsher in voicing this same counterargument: 

There are those who don’t say k’shem because the Sages said, “a person may not ask for his needs in the first three or the last three berachos.” This is foolishness, since that reasoning only applies to someone who formulates an individual request, but anything on behalf of the community is permissible. 

They then go on to provide their own reasoning for not including k’shem

Rather, it seems that one shouldn’t say it because of another reason: since the Sages said (Pesachim 117b [12]) that everything pertaining to the future was established to be said [in reference to] the future, but hodaah pertains to the past, and [it is] because of this they established that Al ha’Nissim in [hodaah], which is about the past. 

The Tur mentions that some include the bakashah and some don’t. He cites the reason given by the Maharam and the Sefer ha’Manhig and the counterargument given by the Abudirham and the Meiri. After noting that Rav Amram’s siddur has it, the Tur says that his father, the Rosh, would not say it. 

It seems it is because of this small but influential band of Ashkenazic dissenters that most Ashkenazic siddurim did not end up including the bakashah, despite it being the majority view among the Rishonim. This may be regarded as another Chanukah-themed instance of “the many [being delivered] into the hands of the few.” 

Understanding the Disagreement 

What are we to make of this machlokess? The majority side has a strong counterargument. How can the Maharam and Manhig insist that Modim is not a place for this bakashah when there are so many exceptions to the rule, especially the seasonal bakashah of u’khesov l’chayim tovim? How can the Baalei Tosafos insist that k’shem has no place in Modim simply because the bakashah is about the future and Modim is about the past? And even though it is reasonable to assume that it is correct to include the bakashah of k’shem, the question is: Why was it instituted in the first place? Why are we asking Hashem to perform miracles for us as He did for them? Furthermore, how do we have the right to make such a request? 

Let us start with the Maharam and the Manhig. The Gemara’s analogy about the servant and master makes it easy to understand why inserting a bakashah into Modim would be inappropriate: it would constitute a pgam (blemish) in the act of hodaah. You should ask your master for something during the time when it is customary to ask your master for things, not during the time when you are supposed to be thanking him. In fact, if a servant did slip a request into his thanks, that might even throw the thanksgiving into question, making it seem like he had an alternative motive. (Think back to the last time someone gave you profusive thanks, then immediately asked you for a favor.) 

What about the exceptions to this “no bakashah during hodaah” rule mentioned by the Abudirham? Two of the exceptions – namely, the bakashah at the conclusion of Magid and the bakashah in Modim de’Rabbanan – are easy to dismiss on the basis that the restriction against adding a bakashah to hodaah applies specifically to modifying Modim in one’s actual Shemoneh Esrei. The difficult exception is u’kheskov l’chayim tovim. Perhaps the answer is that whereas k’shem is a bakashah for a specific good (i.e. miracles at this time), u’khesov is a bakashah for life itself. Such an essential request would not be a violation of protocol in the servant/master relationship because the very existence of the servant/master relationship depends upon the servant staying alive. Thus, it is not a problem for us to interrupt Modim by throwing ourselves at the mercy of our Master and asking Him to grant us life. It can even be argued that such a request is an expression of the hodaah we give him at the beginning of Modim when we refer to Him as the “Rock of our lives, shield of our salvation” and thank Him for “our lives, which are in Your hand, and our souls which are entrusted to You.” 

The Baalei Tosafos don’t care about the fact that k’shem is a bakashah, since they hold that only personal bakashos shouldn’t be added into Modim. All they care about is that “hodaah pertains to the past, and because of this they established that Al ha’Nissim in it, which is about the past,” whereas the bakashah of k’shem is about the future. At first glance, this sounds like irrelevant quibbling about tenses. Who cares that k’shem is about the future? 

In truth, I believe their objection is not about past versus future at all. Modim is about hodaah in general. Al ha’Nissim is about hodaah on a particular event. Thus, even though Al ha’Nissim deviates from the general theme of the berachah, it is still on topic insofar as it is still an expression of thanksgiving. But if within the added hodaah on a particular topic we also add a particular bakashah pertaining to the future – that would be too far removed from the theme of Modim, and would therefore be inappropriate. Imagine someone giving you a general account about their happy childhood. If in the midst of this account they segued into a nostalgic story about a pet dog they had growing up, you might regard this as a tangent, but you’ll still feel like it’s part of the conversation. But imagine if they conclude this story by asking you to come to the pet store with them later on this week to help them pick out a dog for their own child. You’d probably react by thinking: “Wait, what? I thought we were talking about your childhood!” A footnote with additional information? That’s fine. A non-informational footnote on an informational footnote introduces a completely new element? That’s too far afield. 

This leave us with our question on the majority view: Why are we asking Hashem to do miracles for us? Since when do we ask Hashem for miracles in tefilah? And why “at this time and season”? 

I believe the answer lies in an understanding of a fundamental theme of Chanukah. The Rambam [13] opens his discussion of Chanukah with the following: 

During the era of the second Beis ha’Mikdash, during the era of Malchus Yavan (the political sovereignty of Greece), they made decrees against Israel, abolished their religion, and did not allow them to be involved in Torah and mitzvos; the Greeks stretched forth their hands into Israel’s money and women; they entered into the Sanctuary, breached barriers, and rendered the pure impure; they caused Israel great distress and oppressed them exceedingly – until the God of our fathers had mercy on them and saved them from their hands. The Chashmonaim, the great Kohanim, overpowered them and killed them, and saved Israel from their hand. They appointed a melech (king) from the Kohanim, and the malchus (political sovereignty) returned to Israel for over 200 years until the destruction of the second Beis ha’Mikdash. 

It might look like the Rambam is just giving us some factual historical background to Chanukah, without engaging in any homiletics. However, take a look at the Rambam’s [14] very first description of Yemos ha’Moshiach (the Messianic Era) in the Mishneh Torah, in Hilchos Teshuvah: 

Because of this, all the Prophets and Wise Men of Israel desired the era of the Melech ha'Moshiach, so that they can gain relief from the evil malchus which does not allow them to be involved in Torah and mitzvos properly, so that they can find tranquility and increase their wisdom and merit life in Olam ha'Ba

In those days [of the Melech ha'Moshiach] there will be an increase of knowledge, wisdom, and truth, as it is stated, "For the entire world will be filled with knowledge of Hashem" (Yeshaya 11:9)Yemos ha'Moshiach is Olam ha'Zeh, and the world will continue in its natural order - except that the malchus will return to Israel. The Early Sages said: "The only difference between Olam ha'Zeh and Yemos ha'Moshiach is shibude malchiyos (our subjugation to foreign political sovereignty) alone." 

The parallels are clear. During the events of Chanukah we were subjugated to a malchus which didn’t allow us to keep Torah and mitzvos properly, and which cut us off from the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and truth. That malchus was uprooted and Malchus Yisrael (Jewish Sovereignty) was restored, granting us the opportunity to flourish in Torah once again … that is, until we lost our malchus again and our current exile began. In our current exile we find ourselves subjugated to a malchus which doesn’t allow us to keep Torah and mitzvos properly. This political subjugation, according to the Rambam, is the only difference between the current era and Yemos ha’Moshiach. One day the obstructive malchus will be uprooted and Malchus Yisrael will be restored permanently, enabling us to flourish in Torah like never before. 

In light of this, the appropriateness of k’shem is clear: by asking Hashem to save us as He saved them, we are acknowledging that the Chanukah salvation was not standalone event, but rather, was one step on the journey towards the ultimate redemption – a journey we are still on, and have been on for the nearly 2000 years since the Chanukah story ended. In fact, our inclusion of the bakashah of k’shem serves a dual role: (a) it contextualizes the events of Chanukah within the arc of Jewish history, stretching from the past through the present and into the future, thereby achieving the objective of pirsumei nisa (publicizing the miracle) by highlighting the fact that the Chanukah redemption was incomplete and has yet to reach its culmination; (b) the bakashah is a natural extension of the hakaras ha’tov (recognition of the good) central to Modim: our recognition of the true good of the Chanukah salvation moves us to ask Hashem to bring about the full version of that good in our lifetimes. 

To sum it up: 
- the Maharam and Sefer ha’Manhig object to including bakashah in hodaah because it’s a pgam in the hodaah (unless it’s a bakashah for life itself, which is the very premise of the hodaah
- the Baalei Tosafos object to this bakashah because its fundamentally different character, in content and tense, renders it too “off-script” to blend into the hodaah established by the Sages 
- everyone else holds that the bakashah is appropriate because it contextualizes what we’re thanking Hashem for and underscores our yearning for that good to come to fruition 

That’s all I’ve got! If you have a different or sharper explanation, I’m all ears! 

Asking for a Miracle on Chanukah 5781/2020 

As I mentioned before, the Shulchan Aruch, Rema, Mishnah Berurah, and Aruch ha’Shulchan all hold that a person may insert this bakashah if they so choose. I don’t know about you, but this year more than ever I think we are in need of miracles. If the poskim say it’s okay to insert k’shem, then it’s something we should at least consider. 

If you’re bothered by the audacity of asking Hashem to do miracles for us, considering His conservative stance on miracles and our assumed lack of merit, I’d like to quote from the commentary of the Bechor Shor [15] who addresses the question of whether we have the right to ask for a miracle in tefilah

Certainly an individual may not daven for a [personal] miracle, for who is to say that he is worthy? But if he davens that a miracle should be done on behalf of the many – like in the liturgy: “May the Merciful One do miracles for us” – then this is fine. Likewise, all the texts in the piyyutim (liturgical poems) which mention that we daven for a miracle – all of them are in the plural … 

Furthermore, we must differentiate between miracles that are done in a natural manner – such as the wars of the Chashmonaim, which were miracles done in a natural manner – which is not the case regarding the transformation of a female into a male [as described in the Gemara Berachos 60a in which Leah asked that the baby she was carrying be transformed from a male into a female], which is a miracle not done in a natural manner at all. [To daven for a miracle] like that would be a tefilas shav (a prayer in vain). [Therefore,] one must be careful not to daven that a miracle be done for him which is outside of the natural manner

According to the Bechor Shor, there are clear limitations on what types of miracles we may daven for. However, if we daven for miracles which (a) are not personal, but are “for the many,” and (b) are “hidden miracles” rather than supernatural miracles which overtly violate the laws of nature, then such a bakashah would be acceptable. And guess what makes a great paradigm for that category? The miracle of “the wars of the Chashmonaim” in the events of Chanukah! Perhaps this is why the Rambam’s version of Al ha’Nissim doesn’t mention the miracle of the oil, but only the miracle of the war: when, according to the Rambam, we say “just as You did miracles and mighty acts for them, so too, do miracles and mighty acts with us at this time and season,” we are asking Hashem to do non-supernatural miracles for the sake of the Jewish people at large – not supernatural miracles for our own personal benefit. 

When we look around us at all the suffering we have witnessed and experienced in 2020, there is ample need for non-supernatural miracles to help the public: miracles to bring a swift end to the pandemic, whether through expediency in science and technology or by other means; miracles to help the economy; miracles to minimize to minimize the damage being done by the government and its politicians; miracles to unite this fractured country; miracles to assure Israel’s safety in the face of shifting world powers; miracles to help us learn from the many mistakes made by so many people this year. It is miracles like these which are worth davening for at this time and in this season. 

But if we choose to insert the bakashah of k’shem, we must remember that the miraculous solutions we yearn for are a means to a very specific end: so that we can be involved in the good for its own sake, which is “an increase of knowledge, wisdom, and truth,” which will lead to the fulfillment of the prophecy: "For the entire world will be filled with knowledge of Hashem.” 

Just as Hashem did miracles and mighty acts for them, so too, may He do miracles and mighty acts with us, at this time and season. Have a happy and healthy Chanukah! 

[1] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer Ahavah, Sidur ha’Tefilah 
[2] Amram Gaon: Seder Rav Amram Gaon, Seder Chanukah (Haparnas, 1984) 
[3] Saadia Gaon: Sidur Rav Saadia Gaon (Reuven Mass) 
[4] Rav Yosef Karo: Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 682:6; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 682:3 
[5] Rav Moshe Isserless: Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 682:3 
[6] Rav Yisroel Meir ha’Kohen Kagan: Mishnah Berurah 682:8 
[7] Rav Yechiel Michel Ha’Levi Epstein: Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 682:2 
[8] Rabbeinu Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg: Tshuvos, Psakim, u’Minhagim Chelek 1 Siman 612 
[9] Rabbeinu Avraham ben Nosson: Sefer ha’Manhig, Hilchos Megilah p.247 
[10] Rabbeinu David ben Yosef: Abudirham, Commentary on Al ha’Nissim 
[11] Rabbeinu Menachem ha’Meiri: Beis ha’Bechirah, Berachos 34a 
[12] The citation of Pesachim 117b is printed in the standard Tosafos, but I couldn’t find this exact quotation. Abraham Katz, in the Facebook group Passages of Rite: Exploring the History of Nusach Hatefilah, says that Tosafos is paraphrasing the Talmud Yerushalmi in Berachos (Perek 4 Daf 8 Line 1) which says: “Anything which [pertains to that which is] to come should be said in [the berachah of] Avodah, and anything which [pertains] to the past should be said in [the berachah of] Hodaah. And the mishnah said: 'one should give thanks for the past and cry out [in supplication] about the future.'" I subsequently took another look at Pesachim 117b and realized that the Gemara is dealing with particular differences in tense: “gaal Yisroel” vs. “goel Yisrael” and “kideshanu b’mitzvosecha” and “kadsheinu b’mitzvosecha.” Perhaps Tosafos is just drawing a universal principle from the cases mentioned there. The Meiri certainly seems to think so. To my mind, this weakens the argument of the Baalei Tosafos here, since those who include k’shem are not changing the text of Al ha’Nissim established by Chazal by adding the bakashah, but rather, they’re claiming that this bakashah was established by Chazal from the get-go. 
[13] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer Zmanim, Hilchos Chanukah 3:1 
[14] ibid. Mishneh Torah: Sefer ha’Mada, Hilchos Teshuvah 9:2 
[15] Rabbeinu Yosef ben Yitzchak (Bechor Shor), Commentary on Talmud Bavli Maseches Shabbos 21a