Philosophical Implications of Pirsumei Nissa

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by R. Alec Goldstein

There is a common human experience to share news of our good fortune with others. Whether it is excitement about a new job, a new relationship, a new car, or a new home, there is a natural jubilation that overtakes us and prompts us to share these happy developments with those around us.

Judaism has a form of this as well, in the form of pirsumei nissa, literally, “publicization of the miracle.” The phrase is a rather strange one, despite its ubiquity, and it is distinctly rabbinic with no lexical biblical antecedent. This becomes clear when one realizes that the Biblical Hebrew root paras is not related to the phrase pirsummei nissa. In Biblical Hebrew, the word paras means, “break in two, divide,” related to Akkadian parâsu. However, there is an entirely different Hebrew root paras, from Syriac parsi, which means “to reveal.”1 The final mem, to complete the word as a quadriliteral root parsem, appears to have been added later (Jastrow refers to this as an “expansion”).

The second word in the phrase, nissa, is Aramaic for ha-nes, “the miracle.” In Biblical Hebrew, nes has several meanings, including “banner” and “sign.” In other words, it is something that is used to draw attention, create a designation, or assign distinction. Based on this, we get the verb nasa, meaning “uplift,” which is used in both a literal and metaphorical sense. In a metaphorical sense, it can either mean to publicly display a person or thing; it might also mean “to test someone.”2 However, by the close of the Bible, the word nes came to mean “miracle” as a break of the natural order, and this providential intervention was worthy of broadcasting.

As a legal category, pirsumei nissa applies in three cases: the four cups of wine on Passover (Pesaḥim 112a), the public reading of the Megillah on Purim (Megillah 3b, 18a), and lighting candles on Hanukkah (Shabbat 23b-24a),3 and we must observe that all three are rabbinic commandments. The Talmud uses the phrase pirsummei nissa seven times (see Appendix). However, not all examples of pirsumei nissa are the same. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik develops the idea that there are different types. He argues that reading the Megillah is a standardized, fixed, and “exoteric” example of pirsumei nissa, since there is one standard text that has to be read (or at least heard) by everyone. Passover is “esoteric,” since its experience is internal, and is understood differently by the wise son, the simple son, the wicked son, and the son who does not know how to ask. Similarly, Hanukkah can be experienced on different levels: standard, mehadrin, and mehadrin min ha-mehadrin. Thus while Passover and Hanukkah have a subjective component both in cognition and practice, Purim is an entirely rigid example of pirsumei nissa.4

Rabbi Soloveitchik notes a second distinction. We might expect that pirsumei nissa applies only to Jews, but that is not always the case. While it is true that Purim and Passover apply only to Jews, the pirsumei nissa of Hanukkah applies even to non-Jews. Rabbi Soloveitchik proves this point as follows: the Talmud says that one may light Hanukkah candles “until the Tardoma’ei are no longer present” (Shabbat 21b). According to Rashi, Tardoma’ei refers to a nation of non-Jews who go out late at night to collect sticks. In other words, Rashi believes pirsumei nissa applies even to non-Jews.

Rabbi Soloveitchik offers two reasons why this should be the case. His first reason is that the pirsumei nissa of Passover and Purim is fulfilled in part through Torah study—something that does not apply to non-Jews. His second reason, which he calls homiletical, strikes the reader as remarkably relevant: “We do not have to announce to the gentile world that the Jew fights for his physical survival. A Jew is like any other person; he has an instinct for physical survival. This is true even in the animal kingdom. However, Hanukkah was a fight for spiritual survival.”5 In Hanukkah, the Greeks did not attack the Jews’ physical welfare, only their spiritual inheritance. For this reason, pirsumei nissa on Hanukkah applies even to non-Jews.

We have already stated that the phrase pirsumei nissa has no lexical biblical precedent. The question therefore must be asked if this concept was created out of whole cloth. I would like to suggest that pirsumei nissa was the natural extension of ideas that were already in the Israelite consciousness since, at least, the time of the departure from Egypt. Needless to say, many commandments are performed zekher le-yetzi’at Mitrayim, “a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt,” which is the redemption after which all subsequent redemptions are understood. Yet there is a famous teaching that the commandments of tefillin, tzitzit, and sitting in the sukkah all have a cognitive component. R. Joel Sirkis (1561-1640) argues that since the Torah says le-ma’an, “in order that,” regarding these three commandments, therefore if someone does not have proper mindfulness of these commandments, and does not trace them to the exodus from Egypt, then he has not properly fulfilled them.6 In other words, these cornerstone commandments have a cognitive component to remember the miracles in Egypt. The Seforno also points out explicitly that the tefillin are in remembrance of the fact that God changed nature (be-shannoto et teva) in order to rescue the Jews from Egypt.

As soon as the Jews left Egypt, they were assaulted by Amalek. When the Jews finally triumphed, Moses built an altar to commemorate the victory, and he called it Y-H-V-H Nissi (Exod. 17:15). This phrase means “the Lord is my Banner,” but it is clearly the same word as nes, which diachronically came to mean “miracle.”

What is the meaning of this phrase Y-H-V-H Nissi? While the simple meaning is “banner,” Rashi understands it differently: “The Holy One, blessed is He, has wrought a great miracle for us here… one who mentions the name of the altar remembers the miracle that the Omnipresent One has wrought [when someone says,] ‘The Lord is our Miracle [Nes].’”7 Moses built this altar to commemorate the Providential salvation over Amalek.

The Mizraḥi, a supercommentary on Rashi, makes the following remark, “It is always the practice of prophets to build an altar and to name it after the event that occurred there.”8 In other words, for the Mizraḥi, Moses’ actions are backward-looking so we can develop a historical consciousness. However, Nahmanides says that Moses is telegraphing forward to Joshua, and communicating his duty to conquer the land of Israel and annihilate Amalek.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch also views the word nes here as something forward-looking: “nes is the sign that is held aloft to give the fighter the direction and the place where the fight is to be fought. The word that God lets Moses start and found, has not got for its object simple the internal constitution of Israel. The object of the building up of the nation of Israel on the development of every humane feeling and ideal, is to fight and overcome everything ungodly and inhumane on earth. This development does not attach, but it is attached, as by Amalek here, and in this defensive fight, Amalek gets defeated.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik famously quoted from his father, “Every nation that conspires to destroy the Jewish people is considered by the halakhah to be Amalek.”9 Being of the people of Amalek is a conscious choice, not a condemnation of one’s genes. And the altar that Moses built, which commemorates the defeat of Amalek, is both retrospective and prospective. It is retrospective because it commemorates a historical event at a specific location on a specific date. Yet it is prospective because it allows future generations to apply the historical consciousness of the Jewish people. Conceptually, though not halakhically, this is equivalent to pirsumei nissa.

In final analysis, we can say the following: pirsumei nissa is lexically original but reflects a mentality that is traced at least back to the exodus from Egypt. The commandments of tefillin, tzitzit, and sukkah all have a cognitive component not dissimilar to the cognitive component of pirsumei nissa. This theme is salient again in the name that Moses gave the altar after the defeat of Amalek. Furthermore, Egypt and Amalek are the paradigmatic adversaries of the Jewish people, Egypt in terms of oppression and Amalek in terms of wanton destruction. Hence when the stories of Purim and Hanukkah are read, they are theologically understood in terms of Egypt and Amalek.

The salvations that God wrought, against the Egyptians, Amalek, the Persians, and the Greeks, all have a military component. And they were all at a time of national oppression, hence each represents a national salvation. We do not publicize an individual miracle, only one on a national scale.

As with any military effort, it is always possible to reinterpret the campaign as a fortuitous development; commentators have even tried to reinterpret the ten plagues as natural phenomena, which is a direct violation of the verse, “and you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the bondage of Egypt” (Exod. 6:7). Thus, to refute the claim that these victories were mere happenstance, we declare them to be the product of Providence. With these rabbinic commandments, we take upon ourselves the obligation of pirsumei nissa. And pirsumei nissa teaches us both to view the world retrospectively and prospectively. We look backwards upon our tradition, to the great miracles that have allowed us to live, to arrive, and be sustained to reach this season. And we are forward-looking as well, so that we may know continue to feel and understand God’s providential presence among us.

 

APPENDIX

The Talmud uses the phrase pirsummei nissa seven times: Berakhot 14a, Shabbat 23b, Shabbat 24a, Pesaḥim 112a, Megillah 3b, Megillah 18a, Rosh Hashanah 18b. These sources will be addressed seriatim, though some in greater depth.

  1. The fact that Hallel and reading the Megillah are included in pirsumei nissa does not elevate to the level of more stringent than Shema, which is biblical, in terms of interruptions (Berakhot 14a). In this passage, the Talmud observes that under certain circumstances it is permissible to make an interruption between the different paragraphs of the Shema. The Talmud then asks whether or not it is also permissible to make in interruption for the recitation of Hallel and reading the Megillah: perhaps since these are rabbinic commandments, they could not be stricter than the biblical obligation to recite the Shema; or perhaps since Hallel and Megillah have an aspect of pirsumei nissa, they should actually be more restrictive. The Talmud concludes that since these two commandments are rabbinic, they could not possibly be stricter than the biblical commandment of Shema. While this is unsurprising, it is noteworthy that the Talmud thought that the pirsumei nissa aspect could introduce a stringency that is absent in the laws of the Shema.
  2. The second source is a list of comparisons made by Rava:

    “Rava said: It is obvious to me [that in a choice between] a [Sabbath] candle for his house and a candle for Hanukkah, it is preferable to have a Sabbath candle, on account of the peace of his house. [A choice between] a Sabbath candle and [wine] for the sanctification of the day, a Sabbath candle is preferable, on account of the peace of his house.

    Rava asked: [Given a choice between] a Hanukkah candle and [wine] for the sanctification of the day, what is the law? Does the sanctification of the day take precedence, since it is more common, or perhaps a Hanukkah candle takes precedence on account of publicizing the miracle? Rava answered: A Hanukkah candle is preferable because of publicizing the miracle.” (Shabbat 23a)

    The Talmud has a general principle of tadir u-she-eino tadir, tadir kodem, “whichever act is more common should be performed first” (see, e.g., Zevaḥim 89a). Based on this, it should have been preferable to sanctify the day over wine and forego the commandment of lighting Hanukkah candles. Yet Rava concludes that the principle of pirsumei nissa overrides the principles of tadirut.

  1. The Talmud inquires if, based on pirsumei nissa, one must mention Hanukkah in the grace after meals, and concludes that this is not necessary (Shabbat 24a). Nonetheless, it is common practice to include Al ha-Nissim in the birkat ha-mazon.
  2. Mishnah: “They [the administrators of public charity] must make sure he does not have less than four cups of wine, even [if he is supported] from charity” (Pesaḥim 10:1). Talmud: “This is obvious! No, it was needed according to Rabbi Akiva who said, ‘Make your Sabbath like a weekday and do not be a burden on others.’ Here, because of publicizing the miracle [pirsumei nissa], R. Akiva agrees” (Pesaḥim 112a). In other words, to fulfill the four cups of wine, one would have to be a burden to others, even according to R. Akiva. The aspect of pirsumei nissa supersedes the general injunction against burdening others.
  3. In the fifth source, much like in the second one, Rava compares the principle of pirsumei nissa to other halakhic principles (Megillah 3b):
    Temple serviceMegillah reading √
    Torah learningMegillah reading10
    Torah learningBurying an abandoned corpse √
    Temple serviceBurying an abandoned corpse √
    Megillah readingBurying an abandoned corpse √

    Megillah reading overrides Temple service and Torah learning, both of which are biblical commandments, because Megillah reading is an act of pirsumei nissa. However, met mitzvah (burying an abandoned corpse) supersedes even pirsumei nissa because of kavod ha-beriyot (human dignity).

  4. The Talmud asks what is the nature of the commandment to read the Megillah, and starts with the assumption that one must understand what is being read. “Ravina objected to it: ‘Do we understand ha-aḥashtranim bnei ha-rammakhim? Rather, the commandment of reading is publicizing the miracle [pirsumei nissa]” (Megillah 18a). According to the straightforward reading of this passage, it means that even if one does not understand any part of the Megillah, one still fulfills thee commandment to hear the Megillah, since the commandment is not about understanding the words but publicizing the miracle. Rashi, however, softens this statement, writing, “Even though they do not know what they are hearing, they will ask the listeners and say, ‘What is this reading, and what is the miracle about?’ And they will tell him” (s.v. u-firsumei nissa).
  5. The Talmud weighs whether or observance of Hanukkah should override Megillat Ta’anit, and observes that Hanukkah should take precedence (Rosh Hashanah 18b). Rashi’s rationale is surprising at first: ve-hiḥziku bo ke-shel Torah, Hanukkah observances “have become as strong as if they were from the Torah.”

Based on these seven sources, we can draw several conclusions:

First, pirsumei nissa applies only to certain rabbinic commandments: four cups of wine on Passover, reading the Megillah on Purim, and candles on Hanukkah. On a halakhic level, it applies to no biblical commandments.

Second, even though pirsumei nissa is a rabbinic concept, it can compete with biblical precepts. It loses against the biblical precept of reciting the Shema (or at least is not stronger than it); it overrides Torah study and Temple service; it loses against burying an abandoned corpse (since that overrides virtually every commandment in the Torah). This also might explain what Rashi meant when he said Hanukkah is ke-shel Torah.

Third, Rabbi Akiva has a general legal principle that one should not burden others in order to make the Sabbath a festive environment; it is better to forego such luxuries. However, this principle does not apply when pirsumei nissa is involved, at least in the case of purchasing four cups of wine for Passover. Perhaps we can suggest the following: we each have a low-level obligation to make sure our fellow Jews are properly observing religious precepts, but this obligation becomes elevated in cases of pirsumei nissa. As a legal matter, pirsumei nissa always represents a national salvation, either against the threats of the Egyptians, the Persians, or the Greeks; and it recalls the thwarting of a threat to destroy the Jewish nation. If pirsumei nissa is viewed in that light, then it is not a burden on any particular individual to facilitate an impoverished Jew to commemorate that collective salvation.

Fourth, pirsumei nissa overrides the general principles of tadirut. Philosophically, perhaps we could draw the following conclusion: Given a choice between something constant and something extraordinary, Judaism usually prefers what is constant. This is substantiated by the opinion that the greatest principle in the Torah is “The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the afternoon” (Num. 28:4). In Judaism, regularity undergirds everything. Even the majestic services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even the tragic liturgy of Tisha b’Av, is ultimately modelled after the regular daily service. This constancy provides an expected and predictable framework for our lives, a stability of sorts, even in the most spiritually uplifting or crushing moments. However, even that constancy can be uprooted, by means of a miracle. A miracle is a disruption of the natural order. In such cases, we too must supplant tadirut with pirsumei nissa, constancy with the publicization of God’s providential hand in nature. This is reflected even in practice, since given the choice of purchasing wine for Kiddush or candles for Hanukkah, the latter takes precedence.

Aside from the material from the Talmud, it is well known that Maimonides wrote his Mishnah Torah in Hebrew rather than Aramaic, and therefore he does not use the word pirsum. Instead he writes three times le-harot, “to show,” regarding the exodus from Egypt (Ḥametz u-Matzah 7:6, which he links to a biblical verse), Purim (Megillah 2:12) and Hanukkah (3:3).

I have heard it suggested that Maimonides, when he wrote le-harot at the Seder night (rather than lirot), had a defective manuscript. However, based on the fact that he uses the same word to describe the commandments of Purim and Hanukkah, it seems more likely Maimonides used le-harot to translate the Aramaic word pirsum. Maimonides is thus making a conceptual distinction between lirot and le-harot, when he writes, “In each and every generation, one is obligatedto show himself [le-harot et atzmo] as if he himself went forth from the bondage of Egypt, as it says, ‘And He brought us out of there’ (Deut. 6:23)” (Ḥametz u-Matzah 7:6).

This point is explained by Rabbenu Manoah: “And by this remembrance, the fear of God will always be before him, when he sees the Providence of God towards Israel, and he will never turn his heart away from Him, may He be blessed.” In other words, the remembrance of past events will inspire him and affirm his faith in the face of future hardships. This rationale, I would argue, can also be applied to the pirsumei nissa aspect of Purim and Hanukkah as well.

 


  1. Jacob Levy, Worterbuch uber die Talmudim und Midraschim (2nd ed.) (Berlin, 1924).  

  2. See Maimonides, Guide 3:24. This is not the place to explore the role of miracles and tests in biblical theology, but one gets the impression that the biblical man was less concerned with natural/miraculous and more concerned with providential/non-providential.  

  3. Pirsumei nissa may also apply to the recitation of Hallel, but from the thrust of the Talmud, it appears that it refers to the Hallel of Hanukkah and not the Hallel recited on the pilgrimage festivals (see Berakhot 14a). 

  4. Days of Deliverance, 168-171. 

  5. Days of Deliverance, p. 199.  

  6. Bayit Ḥadash to Tur (Oraḥ Ḥayyim 625). Interestingly, Rabbi Soloveitchik makes a similar statement: “Knowledge of the events is indispensable halakhically for the perfect fulfillment of the mitzvot of Hanukkah” (Days of Deliverance, p. 168). 

  7. See also Rashi to Gen. 33:20 

  8. The Mizraḥi uses the word mishpat, which literally means “law,” yet if understood this way, seems inaccurate in both directions, since not every providential event is commemorated with an altar, and not every altar is constructed because of a providential event. However, if we understand mishpat as “custom” or “practice,” then it teaches an important lesson about how one responds to Providence. 

  9. Kol Dodi Dofek, p. 113. 

  10. The Talmud implies that reading the Megillah overrides private Torah learning, but not public Torah learning; however Maimonides appears to suggest that Megillah reading overrides even public Torah reading (Megillah 1:1 and Leḥem Mishneh there). 

About Alec Goldstein

Alec Goldstein received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and is the founder of Kodesh Press. He can be reached at [email protected].

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