A miracle is usually understood as an intervention by God who suspends the laws of nature for a purpose. The rabbinic and modern Hebrew term for it is “NES.” However, this is not what it meant in biblical times.
The term NES, deriving from the Hebrew root NSS, simply means an ensign, a signal, a pole, as in “The Lord said to Moses, ‘make a seraph [meaning uncertain, some say, a winged snake] figure and mount it on a standard (NES)” (Num. 21:8). Or, by extension, it may refer to an example: the rebellious Korah’s band disappeared when the earth opened up, thus becoming a NES (“an example’) (Num. 26:10).
In the ancient Near East, the belief in miracles was based on the assumption that God is omnipotent, and, consequently, He [in the Bible it is always a masculine figure] can interrupt the flow of nature at will. Various Hebrew expressions are used for this phenomenon, such as, GEDOLOT (“great things”) and NIFLAOT (“marvelous works”). In the early rabbinic literature, the word NES refers to miraculous signs, such as: “One who sees a place where miracles (NISIM) happened to Israel should say, ‘Blessed is he who performed miracles for our fathers in this place” (Ber. 9: 1).
It is important to note, however, that neither the Bible nor early rabbinic texts have a systematic understanding of miracles. In those days, people believed that God acted like humans, but considerably stronger and with incredible results. Only during the medieval period did the Jewish philosophers start to interpret the ancient miracles according to the prevailing thinking of their time, without, however, reaching unanimity of opinion. Even though many professed a belief in miracles, others came up with novel interpretations. For instance, Nahmanides (13th cent. Spain) and Hasdai Crescas (14th cent. Spain) believed that miracles were immutable supernatural realities, but others, like Maimonides (d. 1204, Spain and Egypt), argued, in accordance with their rationalistic Aristotelian philosophy, that the so-called miracles were built into the structure of the universe, and when circumstances become favorable they emerge as something new (See, Maimonides, Eight Chapters, ch.8; Guide, 2: 29), and others, like Spinoza (17th cent., Holland) and , later on, Mordecai Kaplan (d. 1983, USA) totally rejected all beliefs in the creditability of the biblical miracles.
There is no doubt that many people in ancient times took miracles for granted, but, even then, there were some who discounted the idea. Thus, for instance, in the biblical times, according to one source, miracles cannot be used to prove a religious truth: The Book of Deuteronomy teaches us that if a prophet gives you a sign, asking you to follow another god, do not do it, “even if the sign or portent (OT or MOFET) that he named to you comes true” (Deut. 13: 3). Similarly, in the rabbinic literature, the sages stressed that no one should pray for something that would alter the past, for it cannot be undone. Thus, “To cry over the past is to utter a vain prayer” (Ber. 9:3).
In our time, it is incumbent upon us to remind people that miracles do not happen. God, as the energy of the universe, does not interrupt the flow of nature for the benefit of anyone, no matter how sincere or hopeful. It is always good to hope for the best, but one cannot depend on it. As one rabbi said in the Talmud: “Never depend on a miracle” (Sab. 32a).
The Universe is a wonderful place. Every moment is a “miracle.” As Walt Whitman (d. 1892) once wrote, “To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle; Every cubit inch of space is a miracle.” As we observe nature, we realize that many of life’s secrets still need to be discovered. And when something incredible does occur, it is because we have not as yet learned how the world really operates and how the laws of nature make this possible. New knowledge enriches us and gives us a better perspective on life. We cannot pray so that the world outside will bend to our purposes, but we can pray so that we can have a better understanding of ourselves and learn how to deal with nature’s surprises. In that respect, the Gates of Prayer, hit the right note when it stated, “Who rise from prayers better persons, their prayer is answered” (1975, p.127).
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Framingham State University