On Miracles, Revealed and Hidden

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

On Miracles, Revealed and Hidden


By Harav Yaaqov Medan

Translated by Elli Fischer



            When discussing the Chanuka miracle, we generally view the miracle of the oil as a “revealed miracle” and the military victory of as a “hidden miracle.”  What, however, defines one miracle as revealed and another as hidden? Furthermore, why was there a need for the miracle of the oil at all? Would we not have managed without it, either by permissibly lighting impure oil under the principle of “tuma hutra be-tzibbur” or by postponing the lighting for another eight days, after it had already been interrupted for over three years?


            I will try to define the difference between revealed and hidden miracles with the following strange fictional example.


            A Torah-observant Jew was sentenced to death by a regime that outlawed the performance of mitzvot. While the Jew was being led to the gallows, the king instructed that a coin toss determine the method for executing this “criminal”: heads would mean being burned at the stake, and tails would mean the guillotine. The coin was tossed and… remained suspended in midair, never landing. The conclusion drawn based on the king’s command was that there was no preferred method of killing the Jew, and he was subsequently released.


            This is a revealed miracle! There is no natural explanation for why the coin remained in midair. The rescue of this Jew who kept the mitzvot and sanctified God’s name overcame the law of gravity, and God’s miracle overcame nature.


            A second case: The wicked king wanted this poor Jew to die a slow and painful death. He decreed that the coin be flipped one hundred times. Each time the coin lands on heads, a limb would be severed from the Jew, until he dies. The coin was flipped a hundred times, and it landed on tails a hundred times. The Jew was sent home, his body intact, and his mouth singing praise to God for having performed a hidden miracle.


            An uneducated person or one who does not understand the laws of nature would presumably be more amazed by the first miracle – how did this coin defy the law of gravity? However, anyone who understands even a bit of mathematics will be impressed sevenfold by the latter miracle. After all, the chances of tossing a hundred straight heads are two to the hundredth power. One has a better chance of selecting one particular grain of sand from all of the world’s beaches. In other words, a revealed miracle is not always the greater miracle.


            It seems to me that the definition of a revealed miracle should entail the suspension of familiar laws of nature by a specific object: a coin remains suspended in midair, a bit of oil burns for eight days, and a pitcher of oil can be poured out and yet remain full. A hidden miracle is a story spun of many details, any one of which can be explained naturally. Each time the coin lands on heads, taken independently, can be explained in a very straightforward manner; similarly, there is no great wonder when an individual Jewish soldier prevails in a hand-to-hand battle with his Seleucid rival. However, despite the fact that each detail of the hidden miracle can be explained independently, the big picture that emerges from the collection of details is inexplicable. The combination of details cannot be coincidental, and must be explained. The fact that the coin fell on heads one hundred consecutive times, thereby saving the Jew from the king’s decree, or the complete victory of the small, weak Hasmonean army over the strong Seleucid army time and again until the Temple could be purified, typify this sort of miracle. The victory was comprised of a thousand details, each of which can be explained independently, but when taken together indicate a miracle – a hidden miracle.


Revealed miracles can be discerned by what they lack: the natural order fades away. A hidden miracle is identifiable by what it has: a clear direction and objective such as the salvation of Israel.


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The general principle is that when a miracle is required to rescue Israel (since the salvation seemingly cannot come about through the natural order), a hidden miracle will suffice, and God need not suspend actual laws of nature. Revealed miracles, however, are a different matter. It seems that revealed miracles are not designed to rescue Israel, but rather to communicate with them. Specifically at a time when prophecy had ceased because of Israel’s sins, miracles became the special manner in which God spoke with His nation – the type of communication that clearly indicates that it is not just another coincidence, but a real message, without faחade and without concealment.


During the purification of the Temple, there was a need to hear from God, but prophecy had ceased. The prophet’s question, “Why do I need your abundance of sacrifice,” and his call, “Stop bringing these vain gifts; incense is abominable to me,” continued to reverberate, emerging from the spiritual state of the people while cleansing the Temple. The Hasmoneans were a tiny minority compared with those who accepted, even begrudgingly, the decrees of the Seleucid ruler and his culture. Would God want, in this environment, thousands of rams and rivulets of oil? Was there a chance that a violent, bloody revolution would truly change the situation of the nation? Would God’s Presence return to a Temple tainted by the sins of the Kohanim and the people, in addition to foreigners? Would a burnt-offering still appease when brought on the same altar that a woman from a prestigious family of Kohanim, Miriam bat Bilga, kicked with her sandal? Was God prepared to embrace His people again, much as the prophet Hoshea embraced Gomer bat Divlayim, his wayward wife?


The miracle of the oil may be explained as an almost direct statement by God to the nation of Israel that He approves of the actions of the Hasmoneans and has returned His Presence to the profaned Temple. When Moshe’s Mishkan was inaugurated, Moshe, Aharon, and the entire nation anticipated seeing whether God desired their project. The answer came in the form of a Divine fire that descended and consumed the burnt offerings and fats on the altar on the eighth day. Similarly, King Shlomo expected a fire to descend from the heavens, and prayed that God show His favor toward Shlomo’s Temple, saying: “God, do not turn away from the face of your anointed; remember the love of David, your servant.” When the fire descended from the heavens, everyone knew, according to Chazal, that David’s sins in the episode of Uriah and Bat-Sheva had been forgiven.


During the inauguration of the Second Temple, there was no heavenly fire, and everyone was chastened by the lack of the Divine Presence. When the Hasmoneans inaugurated the Temple, the miracle of the lights expressed a type of heavenly fire, an indication from God that He approved of His nation and the actions of its servants, the Kohanim of the Hasmonean clan. Although the miracle was not strictly necessary, it communicated to the people God’s pleasure with their path.