The Chanukah lights commemorate not only the miracle of the oil, but also the salvations, miracles and wonders wrought by G‑d. The display of mesirus nefeshby Jews on Chanukah elicited a Divine response transcending even the miraculous.

The festival of Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Chasmoneans over the Greeks and the subsequent rededication of the Beis HaMikdosh. When the Chasmoneans wished to light the menorah, they could find only one flask of pure olive oil, enough to last but one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days.1 This miracle is commemorated each year by the kindling of the Chanukah lights.

Three categories of G‑dly phenomena

A careful reading of the prayer said at the time of kindling indicates that the Chanukah lights commemorate more than just the miracle of the oil. It states:2 “We kindle these lights [to commemorate] the salvations, miracles and wonders which You performed for our forefathers, in those days at this time, through Your holy kohanim. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your salvations.”

That “we kindle these lights [to commemorate] the salvations, miracles and wonders” indicates that the Chanukah lights commemorate not only the miracle of the oil — although this is its principal function — but also three general categories of phenomena wrought by G‑d in those days: salvations, miracles and wonders.

Salvations, miracles and wonders are mentioned twice in this prayer, at the beginning and at the end. But the order in which they are mentioned differs. At the beginning of the prayer it states, “the salvations, miracles and wonders.” At the end the wording is “for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your salvations.”

The beginning narrates the different types of miracles “which You performed for our forefathers in those days.” The order in which they are placed thus follows the order of events as they happened then. The conclusion of the prayer talks of the three categories of miracles as they relate to us — “in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name.” The order in which they are placed thus follows the order in which they inspire us to “offer thanks and praise.”

What is the difference between salvations, miracles and wonders?


In a war between two equal forces, the outcome is unclear and either side may win. For victory to be certain, one needs G‑d’s salvation. However, precisely because one side could win equally as well as the other, this salvation appears as a natural event, not a miracle which transcends nature.


A miracle runs counter to that which can naturally be expected — it transcends nature.3 When a force defeats another which is overwhelmingly superior, which it normally could not do, it is a miracle.


These are events which evoke “wonder” in those who witness them. They are not clear miracles, for they could be considered as natural events. However, they are so different and removed4 from the normal course of affairs that they are “wondrous.”

All three categories of events occurred “in those days” of Chanukah, and in the order of salvations, miracles and wonders.

The victory of the Chasmoneans began in the town of Modin, where Mattisyahu and his sons lived. When the Greeks came to Modin and wished to sacrifice a swine, Mattisyahu and his sons resisted and defeated the Greek forces in battle.5 This was a salvation from G‑d. But since in Modin the Greeks did not overwhelmingly outnumber the Chasmoneans, it was not an obvious miracle or wonder. It appeared as a natural event.

The initial revolt by the Chasmoneans grew into a full-fledged war against the Greeks. Antiochus, the Greek-Syrian emperor, sent in huge numbers of troops to quash the rebellion.6 The Jewish army was greatly outnumbered. Their victory against such odds, when “You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few,” was an open miracle.

After the victory, the Chasmoneans entered the Beis HaMikdosh, which the Greeks had defiled. After cleaning it, the Chasmoneans wished to kindle the menorah. But the Greeks had defiled all the oil. The Chasmoneans eventually found “one flask of oil with the Kohen Gadol’s stamp left intact.”7 The finding of this one flask was not an open miracle. It could have happened that the Greeks simply overlooked it.8 But it was a wondrous thing9 that all the other flasks were defiled and only this one was left untouched10 [Later, there was yet another miracle — that this one bottle of oil lasted for eight days.11 ]

How we relate to miracles

Salvations, miracles and wonders is the order in which these events happened “in those days.” In relation to us — how they cause us to “offer thanks and praise to Your great Name,” the order is “Your miracles, Your wonders, and Your salvations.”

We first thank and praise G‑d for His miracles, which everyone recognizes come from G‑d. Then, after suitable contemplation, we realize that some events are wonders: although they could be attributed to natural causes, we understand they, too, come from G‑d. Finally, we realize that we must thank G‑d even for those things which are neither open miracles nor even wonders, those things which occur “naturally” — salvations. For, as the Psalmist says,12 “salvation is the L‑rd’s.” Nature itself is really G‑dliness, and therefore even salvations call for praise and thanksgiving.

The miracle that the Chasmoneans found a bottle of pure oil was not really necessary for the menorah to be kindled. According to halachah, “impurity is overridden (or permitted) in the case of a community.”13 In a time of communal need, Torah waives the requirement of ritual purity and thus the menorah could have been lit even with impure oil. Yet G‑d, because of His love for the Jewish people, miraculously provided them with the means to light the menorah with pure oil.

In this respect, the finding of the bottle of pure oil, although not a clear miracle, was loftier than the open miracle of victory against overwhelming odds. The latter was a necessary miracle; the former a miracle stemming solely from G‑d’s love for the Jewish people.

Divine conduct in the world — the previously mentioned three phenomena – thus can be summed up as:

(i) Through natural means — “salvations” (victory in Modin)

(ii) Transcending nature — “miracles” (victory against overwhelming odds)

(iii) Transcending even the miraculous — “wonders” (finding the bottle of pure oil)

Measure for measure

G‑d’s conduct corresponds to man’s, “measure for measure.”14 There are three types of service to G‑d which elicit the above three types of G‑dly conduct.

(i) G‑d expresses Himself through natural means when a Jew fulfills Torah and mitzvos according to the halachah, as written, “If you will walk in My statutes and keep My commandments...I will give you rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce...”15 When a Jew fulfills G‑d’s will, G‑d rewards him in a natural way.

(ii) G‑d acts miraculously, transcending nature, when a Jew not only does that which he is obligated, but also acts piously, beyond the strict letter of the law. This is called hiddur mitzvah, hiddur meaning enhancement; one does not keep just the minimum level of observance, but enhances the mitzvah, performing it in the best way possible, sparing no expense or trouble. And G‑d deals with him “measure for measure”: When such a person who could normally, according to the laws of nature, be in distress, G‑d goes beyond the laws of nature and performs a miracle for him.

(iii) The third way, when G‑d’s conduct transcends even the miraculous, is when a Jew acts with mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice.

Highest level of conduct

Mesirus nefesh is conduct even loftier than hiddur mitzvah. Hiddur mitzvah means a Jew performs a mitzvah not because he must, but because he is enthusiastic and passionate about it. He therefore seeks to make his performance always better and with more beauty, although not obligated to do so. A parable to this type of service is a servant who carries out the king’s directives. If he has no enthusiasm and love for the job, but does it only because he has to, he fulfills only the bare directive. But if he himself is enthusiastic about the directive, and it is precious to him, he will try to enhance it as much as he can.

However, even then the servant remains a distinct, separate entity. His ego remains undiminished. He is enthusiastic about fulfilling it, and he wishes to do it in as enhanced a manner as possible.

Mesirus nefesh means a Jew has no independent identity. His entire raison d’être is only to fulfill G‑d’s will. It does not matter to him that he should carry out the directive. What is important is that the directive should be fulfilled, and therefore it is irrelevant who does it as long as it is done. In short, mesirus nefesh means a Jew surrenders his personal identity and is merely an instrument for fulfilling G‑d’s will.

When a Jew performs a mitzvah with hiddur — beyond the strict law — G‑d reciprocates by going beyond the law of nature and performs a miracle for him. But because his primary interest is in himself, and not in the mitzvah per se, G‑d only performs a miracle to assure his existence. When, however, a Jew exhibits mesirus nefesh — when he voids his own existence and is interested only that the mitzvah be done, G‑d reciprocates by not only performing a miracle for him, but also the miracle allows the mitzvah to be fulfilled.

Mesirus nefesh for mitzvos

In the times of the Chasmoneans, Jews exhibited mesirus nefesh for the sake of the idea of a mitzvah. The Greeks did not wish to destroy the Jews’ physical existence; they wanted only to make Jews “forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.”16 The Greeks did not object to the performance of mitzvos as rituals. What they hated and tried to stamp out was the idea of mitzvos coming from G‑d. The war between Jew and Hellene over physical existence was only an extension of the real battle over the Divine nature of a mitzvah.

That is why the miracle of the finding of the bottle of pure oil occurred. It was not necessary for the Jewish people’s existence (unlike the miracle of victory in war), but because Jews went far beyond mere existence — they exhibited mesirus nefesh for the sake of Torah and mitzvos — G‑d performed for them a miracle beyond that necessary for their existence. Because of His love for them evoked by their mesirus nefesh, He provided them with the means to fulfill a mitzvah in the best way possible.

It is for this reason that the mitzvah of Chanukah lights is the only mitzvah which is performed with hiddur min hahiddur. The Talmud states there are three levels in the mitzvah of Chanukah lights. According to the strict halachah; those who are mehader — who wish to enhance the mitzvah; and those who are mehadrin min hamehadrin — who wish to enhance it even more.17 Today, every Jew does it in the best way possible — hiddur min hahiddur. In all other mitzvahs, however, we find only the idea of hiddur mitzvah; there is no hiddur min hahiddur.18

Chanukah is different because Jews wished to commemorate this mitzvah commensurate with the miracle. The finding of the pure oil was a miracle which showed G‑d’s love for the Jews. All Jews therefore commemorate it in the most loving way possible: Not just according to the law; not even with hiddur; but with hiddur min hahiddur. For hiddur min hahiddur — complete mesirus nefesh — is the idea of Chanukah.

The equation is complete: The mesirus nefesh of Jews “in those days” elicited a response from G‑d loftier than a miracle, which in turn is commemorated by all Jews today in the loftiest way possible.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, pp. 92-94; Vol. XV, pp. 366-369