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Reuven Kimelman





Al HaNissim: A Chanukah Prayer Revised to Include 1 Maccabees



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Reuven Kimelman





Al HaNissim: A Chanukah Prayer Revised to Include 1 Maccabees






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Al HaNissim: A Chanukah Prayer Revised to Include 1 Maccabees

While silent about the miracle of oil, Al HaNissim calls attention to the lighting of the lampstand in the Temple, even making use of the Talmud’s wording, thus leaving the matter open to interpretation.


Al HaNissim: A Chanukah Prayer Revised to Include 1 Maccabees

Al HaNissim in Prayers and Blessings, 1738 Fürth, Bavaria, Germany. Wikimedia

The Al HaNissim prayer, likely composed in the Geonic period (around 7th–10th cent. C.E.), is recited on Chanukah in both the Amidah (daily prayer) and Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals).[1] The version of the prayer that we say differs from the version found in the Geonic period work, in Tractate Soferim,[2] which states that as part of the Modim blessing, we say:

מסכת סופרים כ:ו והודאת פלאות ותשועת כהנים אשר עשית בימי מתתיהו בן יוחנן כהן גדול וחשמונאי ובניו וכן עשה עמנו ה' אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו נסים ונפלאות ונודה לשמך לנצח ב[רוך] א[תה] י"י הטוב.
Sofrim 20.6 and with acknowledgement of the wonders and the salvation of priests that You wrought in the days of Mattathias son of Yohanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons. So perform for us Adonai our God and God of our ancestors miracles and wonders and we will thank Your name forever. Blessed are You Adonai, who is good / the Good.[3]

In contrast to this brief version, our Al HaNissim is much lengthier, and more descriptive about the war, and the specifics of the Maccabees’ first Chanukah. One major feature of our version that does not appear in the Soferim version is the incorporation of details found also in the Chanukah account in 1 Maccabees into the retelling.

The Al HaNissim Opening

The opening of Al HaNissim is common to both Chanukah and Purim:

עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַנִּפְלָאוֹת שֶׁעָשִֽׂיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה
For the miracles, for the deliverance, for the acts of might, for the acts of salvation, and for the wondrous acts that you wrought on behalf of our ancestors in those days at this time.

It follows the model of the preceding Modim blessing of the Amidah in its repetitive use of עַל and its reference to miracles and wonders:

עַל חַיֵּֽינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶֽךָ וְעַל נִשְׁמוֹתֵֽינוּ הַפְּקוּדוֹת לָךְ וְעַל נִסֶּֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּֽנוּ וְעַל נִפְלְאוֹתֶֽיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת
[F]or our lives that are in Your hand, and for our souls that are in Your charge, and for Your miracles that are daily with us, and for Your wonders and kindnesses at all times.

The prayer then moves on to Chanukah specifically.

Mattathias the “High Priest”

It begins with the introduction of Mattathias:

בִּימֵי מַתִּתְיָֽהוּ בֶּן יוֹחָנָן כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל חַשְׁמוֹנָאִי וּבָנָיו
In the days of Mattathias, son of Yoḥanan, the high priest, the Hasmonean and his sons.

This introduction is similar to how Mattathias is introduced in 1 Maccabees:

1 Macc 2:1 In those days Mattathias son of Yoḥanan son of Simeon, a priest of the clan of Joarib, moved from Jerusalem and settled in Modein.[4]

While the name of the father is Yohanan in both,[5] 1 Maccabees does not say that he was a high priest. Indeed, Mattathias was never high priest, nor was Mattathias’ father the famous Yoḥanan (Ḥonya/Onias) the high priest.[6] It is possible that the rabbis accidentally conflated two historical personages, or that they wished to present Mattathias as coming from a high priestly line. Alternatively, כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל here may indicate a distinguished priest, as opposed to an official title.

Josephus understands the term Hasmonean as a reference to an ancestor of Mattathias, while rabbinic sources seem to imply it was another name for Mattathias himself.[7] Either way, the term does not appear in either 1 or 2 Maccabees, and attempts to understand its origin are speculative.

Rising Against Israel

Al HaNissim describes the persecution as the rise of the Greeks over the Judeans.

כְּשֶׁעָמְדָה מַלְכוּת יָוָן הָרְשָׁעָה עַל עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל
when the evil Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel

The subject here is not when the Greek Empire was founded, almost two centuries earlier, but when it began to persecute “Your people Israel.”

Notably, Exodus Rabbah works with this same concept, but about Rome:

שמות רבה יח:ב מִשֶּׁעָמְדָה אֱדוֹם אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא הַסִּימָן הַזֶּה יִהְיֶה בְּיֶדְכֶם בַּיּוֹם שֶׁעָשִׂיתִי לָכֶם תְּשׁוּעָה וּבְאוֹתוֹ הֱיוּ יוֹדְעִים שֶׁאֲנִי גוֹאַלְכֶם.
When Edom (=Rome) arose: The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “This sign will be in your hands On the day that I grant you salvation, on that same day, know that I will redeem you.”[8]

Transgressing Torah Laws

The Greeks were trying to make Israel forget Torah and violate its commandments:

לְהַשְׁכִּיחָם [או: לְשַׁכְּחָם] תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ וּלְהַעֲבִירָם מֵחֻקֵּי רְצוֹנֶֽךָ.
to make them forget Your Torah and to get them to transgress Your laws

This claim comes from the book of Maccabees:

*[כדי שישכחו את התורה וימירו את כל החוקים.][9]
so as to forget the Torah and violate all the commandments.

The Time of Distress

The focus now turns to God’s fighting Israel’s war:

וְאַתָּה בְּרַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים עָמַדְתָּ לָהֶם בְּעֵת צָרָתָם.
You, in Your overwhelming mercy, stood by them in their time of distress.

The Tosefta tells the story of Miriam daughter of Balgah, who apostatized during the Greek persecution, and rebuked the altar (a stand in for God?) for not standing by Israel in the time of their distress:

תוספתא סוכה ד:כח הלכה ונשאת לסרדיוט אחד ממלכי יון וכשנכנסו גוים להיכל באתה וטפחה על גגו של מזבח אמרה לו לוקס לוקס אתה החרבת ממונן של ישראל ולא עמדת להם בעת צרתם
t. Sukkah 4:28 She went off and married an officer at the Greek royal house. And when the Gentiles went into the sanctuary, she came along and stamped on the altar, screaming at it: “Lykos! Lykos! [=“wolf” in Greek]. You have wiped out the fortune of Israel and did not then stand up for them in the time of their distress.”[10]

God Fights Their Fight

Al HaNissim continues by describing God’s actions in cognate accusative form—where the verb and its object come from the same root:

רַבְתָּ אֶת רִיבָם. דַנְתָּ אֶת דִּינָם. נָקַמְתָּ אֶת נִקְמָתָם.
You fought for them, You brought them justice, You avenged them.

Similar rhetoric appears in Seder Gan Eden, an obscure midrash from the Islamic period, which describes how the patriarchs and the Ophanim (a type of angel) will gather before the Messiah in the Temple and witness (in a vision?) all the terrible things that happened to Jewish martyrs. The midrash uses the same phrases about God exacting judgment and vengeance:

סדר גן עדן ואותם האופנים כלם ינשאו ועולין אצל מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא ונשבע להם ללבוש בגדי נקם ולדון את נקמתם מן האומות, שנאמר (תהלים קי:ו) "ידין בגוים מלא גויות".[11]
Seder Gan Eden The all the Ophanim will go up to the King of Kings, the Blessed Holy One, and He will make them swear to put on the clothing of vengeance, and to bring avenging judgment against the peoples of the world, as it says (Ps 110:6): “He works judgment upon the nations, heaping up bodies.”

Many Versus Few

מָסַֽרְתָּ גִבּוֹרִים בְּיַד חַלָּשִׁים וְרַבִּים בְּיַד מְעַטִּים
You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few

This imagery of mighty versus week, and more specifically the phrase “many in the hands of the few” comes from Judah Maccabee’s speech before the fateful Chanukah battle in 1 Maccabees:

מקבים א ג:יח *[ויאמר יהודה: נקל הוא להסגיר רבים ביד מעטים ואין הבדל לפני השמים להושיע ברבים או במעטים. ג:יט כי לא ברוב חיל הוא ניצחון במלחמה כי אם מן השמים הכוח.][12]
1 Maccabees 3:18 Judah said: It is easy for many to be delivered into the hands of the few. Heaven sees no difference in gaining victory through the many or through the few. 3:19 It is not on the size of the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from heaven.

Wicked Versus Pious

The next phrases are ambiguous, indicating both Greeks and Hellenizers:

וּטְמֵאִים בְּיַד טְהוֹרִים וּרְשָׁעִים בְּיַד צַדִּיקִים וְזֵדִים בְּיַד עוֹסְקֵי תוֹרָתֶֽךָ
the defiled into the hands of the undefiled the wicked into the hands of the righteous and the perpetrators into the hands of the those committed to Your Torah.

While the Greeks themselves would fit this description, variations on these terms are used to refer to the wicked of Israel in late biblical writings:

דניאל יא:לב וּמַרְשִׁיעֵי בְרִית יַחֲנִיף בַּחֲלַקּוֹת וְעַם יֹדְעֵי אֱלֹהָיו יַחֲזִקוּ וְעָשׂוּ.
Dan 11:32 He will flatter with smooth words those who act wickedly toward the covenant, but the people devoted to their God will stand firm.
נחמיה ט:טז וְהֵם וַאֲבֹתֵינוּ הֵזִידוּ וַיַּקְשׁוּ אֶת־עָרְפָּם וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל־מִצְוֺתֶיךָ.
Neh 9:16 But they—our fathers—acted presumptuously; they stiffened their necks and did not obey Your commandments.[13]

The contrast with the positive, Israel-oriented phrase “those committed to Your Torah,” is paralleled in 1 Maccabees:

מקבים א ד:מב *[ויבחר כוהנים תמימים חפצים בתורה].[14]
1 Macc 4:42 He (Judah) appointed unblemished priests committed to the Torah.

Magnification of God’s Name

וּלְךָ עָשִֽׂיתָ שֵׁם גָּדוֹל וְקָדוֹשׁ בְּעוֹלָמֶֽךָ
And You had Your name magnified and sanctified in Your world.

Magnifying God’s name is also present in the opening of Kaddish, another prayer from the Geonic period:

יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא בְּעָלְמָא
May His name become magnified and sanctified in the world.[15]

The phrase is biblical, appearing in the book of Samuel, in the context of God promising to make David’s name great:

שמואל ב ז:ט וָאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר הָלַכְתָּ וָאַכְרִתָה אֶת כָּל אֹיְבֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ וְעָשִׂתִי לְךָ שֵׁם גָּדוֹל כְּשֵׁם הַגְּדֹלִים אֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ.
2 Sam 7:9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut down all your enemies before you. Moreover, I will magnify your name like that of the greatest men on earth.

The Geonic uses of the term is inverted, with people magnifying God’s name.

Israel’s Redemption

וּלְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשִֽׂיתָ תְּשׁוּעָה גְדוֹלָה וּפֻרְקָן כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Regarding Your people Israel: You performed a great deliverance and redemption unto this very day.

The use of the Aramaic synonym for salvation, פּוּרְקָן, is common in geonic liturgy. For example in this Shabbat prayer recited after the Torah reading service:

יְקוּם פּוּרְקָן מִן שְׁמַיָּא... וְתִּתְפָּרְקוּן וְתִשְׁתֵּזְבוּן מִן כָּל עָקָא.
May salvation arise from heaven… And be saved and redeemed from all trouble.[16]

Purifying the Sanctuary

וְאַחַר כֵּן בָּֽאוּ בָנֶֽיךָ לִדְבִיר בֵּיתֶֽךָ, וּפִנּוּ אֶת הֵיכָלֶֽךָ, וְטִהֲרוּ אֶת מִקְדָּשֶֽׁךָ,
Afterwards, Your children entered the Holy of Holies of Your Abode, cleaned out Your Temple, purified Your sanctuary,

Clearing out profaned materials from the Sanctuary and purifying it seems to be drawn from a more detailed account in 1 Maccabees:

*[מקבים א ד:מג והם טיהרו את המקדש ונשאו את אבני השיקוץ אל מקום טמא. ד:מד ויוועצו על אודות מזבח העולה המחולל, מה יעשו לו, ד:מה ותיפול להם עצה טובה להורסו... ד:מו ויניחו את האבנים בהר הבית... ד:מז ויקחו אבנים שלמות, כדת, ויבנו מזבח חדש, כמו הראשון. ד:מח ויבנו את המקדש ואת פני הבית ואת החצרות קידשו.][17]
1 Macc 4:43 They purified the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones into an unclean place. 4:44 They deliberated what to do with the profaned altar. 4:45 And they thought it best to tear it down… 4:46 and they stored the stones in the Temple... 4:47 Taking uncut stones as prescribed by the Torah, they built a new altar after the pattern of the old. 4:48 They repaired the sanctuary and hallowed the interior of the house and the courts.

Lighting Candles

וְהִדְלִֽיקוּ נֵרוֹת בְּחַצְרוֹת קָדְשֶֽׁךָ
and kindled lights in the courtyards of Your sanctuary.[18]

In all likelihood, the author of this prayer would have known the miracle of the oil account found once in the Talmud.

בבלי שבת כא: בָּדְקוּ וְלֹא מָצְאוּ אֶלָּא פַּךְ אֶחָד שֶׁל שֶׁמֶן שֶׁהָיָה מוּנָּח בְּחוֹתָמוֹ שֶׁל כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל, וְלֹא הָיָה בּוֹ אֶלָּא לְהַדְלִיק יוֹם אֶחָד. נַעֲשָׂה בּוֹ נֵס וְהִדְלִיקוּ מִמֶּנּוּ שְׁמוֹנָה יָמִים. לְשָׁנָה אַחֶרֶת קְבָעוּם וַעֲשָׂאוּם יָמִים טוֹבִים בְּהַלֵּל וְהוֹדָאָה.
b. Shabbat 21b they searched and came up with only one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest, only enough for one day of lighting. A miracle occurred and they lit from it for eight days. The next year, they designated these days as holidays by reciting “Hallel” and “Hodu.”[19]

Indeed, the end of Al HaNissim is nearly identical to the Talmudic formulation.[20] Yet, Al HaNissim does not mention it, and instead follows the account of 1 Maccabees in this detail as well:

*[מקבים א ד:מט ויעשו כלי קודש חדשים, ויביאו את המנורה... ד:נ ויקטירו על גבי המזבח ויעלו את הנרות אשר על המנורה ויאירו במקדש.][21]
1 Maccabees 4:49 They made also new holy vessels, and into the temple they brought lampstand… 4:50 … and lit the lamps on the lampstand that they might give light in the Temple.[22]

Still, the fact that Al HaNissim mentions the lampstand at all, and writes in ways so similar to the Babylonian Talmud, implies that the author wished to call this story to mind, allowing for ambiguity in meaning.

The passage recited after lighting the Chanukah candles follows suit. Although it knows the Babylonian Talmud’s account, it makes no mention of the miracle of the oil, preferring Al HaNissim’s more generalized terminology:

הַנֵּרוֹת הַלָּלוּ שֶׁאָנוּ מַדְלִיקִין, עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַנִּפְלָאוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה, עַל יְדֵי כֹּהֲנֶיךָ הַקְּדוֹשִׁים.
We kindle these lights for the miracles, for the wondrous acts, and for the acts of salvation which You wrought then at this time for our ancestors through Your holy priests.
וְכָל שְׁמוֹנַת יְמֵי הַחֲנֻכָּה הַנֵּרוֹת הַלָּלוּ קֹדֶשׁ הֵם וְאֵין לָנוּ רְשׁוּת לְהִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ בָּהֶם, אֶלָּא לִרְאוֹתָם בִּלְבָד, כְּדֵי לְהוֹדוֹת וּלְהַלֵּל לְשִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל עַל נִסֶּיךָ וְעַל נִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ וְעַל יְשׁוּעָתֶךָ.
For all eight days of Chanukah these lights are special, used only for gazing, that we may give thanks and say Hallel to Your great name for Your miracles, for Your wondrous acts, and for Your acts of salvation.

These texts, and that of Tractate Soferim (quoted above), stand in contrast to the explicit reference to the miracle of the oil in Megillat Antiochus (§76–80).

Designating Eight Days of Hanukah

וְקָבְעוּ שְׁמוֹנַת יְמֵי חֲנֻכָּה אֵֽלּוּ
and designated these eight days of Chanukah

According to 1 Maccabees, Judah himself established the eight-day festival of Chanukah upon purifying the Temple, and note the use of the term dedication, which is where Chanukah derives its name:

*[מקבים א ד:נד בזמן וביום אשר בו חיללו אותו הגויים, ב[יום] ההוא נחנך בשירים ובקתרוסים, בכינורות ובמצלתים... ד:נו ויעשו את חנוכת המזבח ימים שמונה, ויעלו עולות בשמחה ויזבחו זבחים שלמים ותודה...][23]
1 Macc 4:54 At the very season and on the very day that the nations had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals…. 4:56 So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering…
*[ד:נט ויקבעו יהודה ואחיו וכל עדת ישראל כי יוחגו ימי חנוכת המזבח בזמניהם, מדי שנה בשנה, ימים שמונה, מן החמישה ועשרים בחודש כסלו, בשמחה ובששון.][24]
4:59 Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev.[25]

Reciting Hallel and Hodu

The prayer ends by stating that the purpose of establishing Chanukah was to “hodu” and “hallel”:

לְהוֹדוֹת וּלְהַלֵּל לְשִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל
for reciting [the prayers known as] “Hodu” and “Hallel” to Your great Name.

Hodu may designate a specific liturgical response, as also implied in Psalms:

תהלים קיח:א הוֹדוּ לַי־הוָה כִּי טוֹב כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ.
Ps 118:1 Praise YHWH, for He is good, His steadfast love is eternal.[26]

Hallel may designate the liturgical use of Psalms 113–118, as is the practice on Chanukah. The two terms appear together in Chronicles:

דברי הימים ב ה:יג וַיְהִי כְאֶחָד (למחצצרים) [לַמְחַצְּרִים] וְלַמְשֹׁרְרִים לְהַשְׁמִיעַ קוֹל אֶחָד לְהַלֵּל וּלְהֹדוֹת לַי־הֹוָה...
2 Chron 5:13 The trumpeters and the singers joined in unison to praise and extol YHWH…[27]

The final words of the prayer return to the magnification of God’s name, as seen above.

Adding 1 Maccabees to an Earlier Version

The unusual inclusion of material from 1 Maccabees—a work never quoted in rabbinic literature—is unique to this prayer. As noted at the beginning, other than the reference to Mattathias son of Yoḥanan, nothing in the Soferim version connects to the account in 1 Maccabees.

Our Al HaNissim likely reflects a revision—either of the version in Soferim or some other early prayer. The authors of this revision not only knew 1 Maccabees but used it to expand an already existent Chanukah prayer to reflect the tenor of its telling of the story, one that is quite different than the Chanukah story in the Babylonian Talmud.

Yet by mentioning the lampstand, they called attention to the story in the Talmud, thereby finessing the basis of Chanukah – be it the miraculous victory, the rededication of the Temple, or the miracle of the oil. As a consequence, all can find their way to welcome in the celebration of the festival of lights.[28]


December 14, 2023


Last Updated

December 31, 2023


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Prof. Rabbi Reuven Kimelman is Professor of Classical Judaica at Brandeis University and rabbi of Beth Abraham Sephardic Congregation of New England, Brookline, MA. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in religious studies. He is the author of The Mystical Meaning of ‘Lekhah Dodi’ and Kabbalat Shabbat’ and the forthcoming The Rhetoric of the Jewish Liturgy: A Historical and Literary Commentary on the Prayer Book. His audio course books are The Hidden Poetry of the Jewish Prayer Book and The Moral Meaning of the Bible.