Jewish Views on Miracles

To what extent should Jews believe that miracles occurred in the past and continue to occur today?

In the Bible, the Talmud, and all other ancient and medieval Jewish writings it is taken for granted that miracles can and do occur, although a miracle was not thought of as a suspension of natural law since, before the rise of modern science, there was no such concept as a natural law that required to be suspended.

The Natural Order of the World

A miracle was an extraordinary event which, precisely because it was so different from the normal course of events, provided evidence of God’s direct intervention; hence the biblical term nes, ‘sign,’ for a miracle.

The miracle is an indication of divine intervention in particular circumstances. The whole question of miracles involves the doctrine of divine providence, how the transcendent God can be said to become manifest in the particular events of the world, although this way of looking at the problem did not emerge in Jewish thought until the age of the medieval philosophers.

The Mishnah (Berakhot 9:3) defines as a ‘vain prayer’ a cry to God to undo the past. Two illustrations are given. One is where a man’s wife is pregnant, and he prays that the child she is carrying should be a boy. The other is where a man hears from afar the sound of lamentation and prays that the sound should not be one that proceeds from his own house.

In both these instances the prayer is futile since the event has already taken place. In the first instance, however, God can perform a miracle and change the sex of the fetus from female to male but that, as the Gemara states in its comment to the Mishnah, is to pray for a miracle to be performed and no man has the right to assume that he is worthy for God to perform a miracle on his behalf.

Throughout the Rabbinic literature, the possibility of miracles occurring is accepted unreservedly while, at the same time, what is now called the natural order is seen as the usual manifestation of divine providence and the identification of a particular event as a miracle is viewed with caution.

Are Miracles Desirable?

The medieval philosophers, too, acknowledge that miracles do occur but there is a tendency to explain even the biblical miracles in natural terms. Despite the tensions in this matter, the power of holy men to work miracles is recognized in the Bible, the Talmud, and Midrash, and in subsequent Jewish hagiography down to the Hasidic tales of the miracles performed by the Hasidic Zaddik.

Some modern Jewish theologians have incorrectly read a Talmudic debate (Shabbat 53b) as implying that there is a degree of spiritual vulgarity in hankering after miracles. The passage tells of a poor man whose wife had died, leaving him with a little babe. A miracle happened in that his breasts became as a woman’s that he might suckle the infant.

One Rabbi remarked: ‘How great this man must have been that such a miracle was performed for him,’ but his colleague retorted: ‘On the contrary! How unworthy this man must have been that the order of creation was changed on his behalf.’

However, the second Rabbi is not denigrating holy men on whose behalf miracles happen, only this particular man and this particular kind of miracle involving a reversal of the roles and nature of male and female.

Evidence & Belief

The real question for moderns is not can miracles happen, but did they and do they happen. As Hume recognized, the question is one of evidence. Many events that were seen in the past as miracles can now be understood as due to the operation of natural laws, even though Hume himself is less than categorical about the absolute necessity of cause A always to produce the effect B it usually seems to produce.

Undoubtedly, a modern Jewish believer will be far less prone to attribute extraordinary events to a supernatural intervention, but his belief in God’s power will not allow him to deny the very possibility of miracles occurring.

A Hasidic saying has it that a Hasid who believes that all the miracles said to have been performed by the Hasidic masters actually happened is a fool, but anyone who believes that they could not have happened is an unbeliever. The same can be said of miracles in general.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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