Jewish Views on Miracles

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

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

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.

jewish miraclesThe 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 changethe 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.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.