Chanukah and Prayer for IDF Soldiers

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by R. Gil Student

I. Praying for a Soldier

We pray for a time when there will be no more war. We also pray that until that time arrives, our soldiers return from the battlefield to their families and their lives. Is this prayer allowed? On a theological level, does the prayer make sense?

Every soldier has loved ones who care deeply about his safe return. Whether a mother or father, spouse or sibling, uncle or cousin, family or friend, they all worry about the soldier who puts himself in harm’s way in service to his country and his people. Who can sleep when a young family member is in the middle of a deadly war? We pray, we cry, we say Tehillim. That is for individuals and is certainly proper and appropriate. We translate our deepest desires and our belief in how the world works into prayers and requests. However, when it comes to soldiers in general, things get more complicated.

During Chanukah, we add to our prayers the “Al Ha-Nissim” passage thanking God for the Chanukah miracles. We add this to the Amidah prayer and to bentching, the grace after meals. However, because Chanukah is not a biblical holiday, if you forget to say Al Ha-Nissim, you do not repeat the prayers. Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, gloss to Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 187:4, 682:1) says that if you remember after the appropriate blessing in bentching, you can add Al Ha-Nissim afterwards in the Ha-Rachaman section, which consists of additional requests after all the blessings are finished. The text is: “May the Compassionate One perform for us miracles and wonders like He did for our ancestors in those days, at this time. In the days of Matisyahu, son of Yochanan,…” Mishnah Berurah (682:4) adds that something similar can be done at the end of the Amidah.

II. Praying for a Miracle

While this seems like an elegant solution to the problem of forgetting Al Ha-Nissim, Rav Sender Shor (18th cen., Poland; Bekhor Shor, Shabbos 21b) points out a difficulty. The Mishnah (Berakhos 54a) says that if a man prays that his pregnant wife give birth to a boy (or a girl), he has said a tefillas shav, a prayer in vain. The baby’s gender is already a fact. Any prayer about it is too late. The Gemara (ibid., 60a) points out that when Leah was pregnant with a seventh boy, she prayed that it turn into a girl so her sister, Rachel, could give birth to two of Ya’akov’s twelve sons. In other words, miracles happen. Can’t a pregnant father pray for a miracle? No, the Gemara concludes, we do not account for miracles. A prayer for a miracle is a tefillas shav, a prayer in vain.

If so, asks Rav Shor, how can someone who forgets Al Ha-Nissim pray for a miracle by saying, “May the Compassionate One perform for us miracles…?” We do not pray for miracles. We live within the natural world and ask God to protect us and provide for us within the rules of nature. While we believe that miracles sometimes happen, we do not expect them or hope for them.

Similarly, the natural way is that during war, soldiers are injured and die. Even during the Six Day War, which was incredible in both its brevity and its success, over 700 soldiers died and many more were injured. Each death is a tragedy that devastates family and friends. We hope for minimal deaths but is it realistic to expect it? After the unexpected devastation of October 7, dozens of soldiers have died. Thankfully it has not been more but we want no deaths, no sorrow, no tragedy. Can we pray for this miracle going forward? Or is that an unreasonable and improper prayer, and instead we should focus on the safety of specific individuals we know?

III. Different Kinds of Miracles

Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (19th cen., Ukraine; Divrei Shaul, Gen. 43:14) suggests that the Al Ha-Nissim prayer for miracles refers to the final redemption. We can ask God for miracles that He already promised us. This does not contradict the Gemara that disallows asking for miracles in our daily lives. According to this approach, we should not pray for miracles in war.

Rav Sender Shor offers two answers for his question. First, he differentiates between individuals and a community. No individual can presume to deserve a miracle. God created the world with laws of nature and only breaks through those laws in the rarest of occasions. However, a community — and particularly the entire Jewish people — can expect a higher level of divine guidance and exception. You are not supposed to pray for a personal miracle but you are allowed to pray for a communal or national prayer. When we say Al Ha-Nissim as a request, we ask for miracles on behalf of the entire Jewish people which merits special divine providence. Similarly, according to this approach, we can ask on behalf of the Jewish people for a successful and safe war of self-defense.

Rav Shor further distinguishes between a supernatural miracle and a miracle within nature. When the sun stops for hours, contrary to its natural path, that is a supernatural miracle. When a female fetus is changed to male (or vice versa), that is a supernatural miracle. We are not allowed to pray for such miracles. However, the miracle of Chanukah was for an unexpected military victory. That falls within the laws of nature and therefore is allowed. Similarly, praying for IDF military strategy to succeed completely so that casualties are avoided is asking for a miracle within the laws of nature. According to this approach, not only are we allowed to pray for no military casualties and injuries, the Al Ha-Nissim request seems to be that very prayer.

Someone who prays in a mature fashion does not merely put together a wish list into word form. God is not Hanukkah Harry who bestows gifts on unworthy children. Rather, a prayerful person understands the complexity of our existence and asks for divine assistance in the struggles of life. Some prayers are appropriate and some are not. When it comes to the safety of our soldiers in the IDF, there is ample to room to pray for their overall safety even though it may require a miracle. Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (Yerushalayim Be-Mo’adeha, Chanukah, p. 73) takes a view similar to the second approach above. While we do not pray for miracles in our own lives, when we are dealing with Klal Yisrael, we can assume that the Jewish people as a whole merits miraculous treatment. Until the time that peace is with us, we pray for the safety of Klal Yisrael’s soldiers who are safeguarding our country and our people.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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