Most commonly associated with Hanukkah, a variation of this prayer is also recited on Purim, and some communities recite a new version on Israel’s Independence Day. All of these are post-Biblical observances. The words recited in Al Hanisim serve to define God’s role in these historical events. As detailed in this article, Al Hanisim is actually an insertion into a one of the standard Amidah prayers — the prayer of Thanksgiving.
While the article focuses on the technicalities of this prayer, one additional point should be made. By treating the Al Hanisim as an insertion into a standard prayer, the status of the holiday is maintained (as being less then a festival) while still religiously acknowledging the importance of God’s role in post-Biblical events.
This article is excerpted with permission from The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (Jason Aronson).
A prayer that relates briefly to the story of Hanukkah and Purim, [Al Hanisim is] inserted into the 18th benediction of the Amidah (“Modim“) and into the second benediction of Birkat Hamazon [the grace after meals](“Nodeh L’kha“).
The introductory sentence reads as follows: Al Hanisim–“We thank Thee for the miracles, the redemption, and the triumphant victories, and liberation which Thou hast wrought for our fathers in days of old at this season.” Following that is a description of the basic events of Hanukkah (“Bimay Mattityahu–in the days of Mattathias] and Purim (“Bimay Mordehcai–in the days of Mordecai”].
Since Al Hanisim serves as an expression of thanksgiving, it is most fitting that it is placed into the benediction called Hoda’ah (“Thanksgiving”). A short version of Al Hanisimis found in Soferim (20:8), and the current text is taken from the Siddur [prayer book] of Rav Amram Gaon (Seder Hanukkah) and Siddur R. Sa’adyah Gaon (256). Reciting Al Hanisimis also mentioned in She’iltot (Va- yishlah) of Gaon Aha. Variation in text exists between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic rites.
Some authorities add the conjunction vav before the word Al, thus Ve’al (“And for. . .”). Owing to the fact that the festivals of Hanukkah and Purimare post-biblical and were established by rabbinic ordinances, Al Hanisim does not have to be repeated if one inadvertently omitted it in the Amidah or in Birkat Hamazon.
Customarily, Al Hanisim is not announced at Teffilat Arvit [the evening prayer service], because prior to Teffilat Arvitthe candles are lit in the synagogue and the worshipers are apprised of the additional recital. The [religious authority known as] Abudraham, however, suggests that Al Hanisim be announced by the SHaTZ [prayer leader] on Purim.
Pronounced: KHAH-nuh-kah, also ha-new-KAH, an eight-day festival commemorating the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks and subsequent rededication of the temple. Falls in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which usually corresponds with December.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.