The Parashos of Yetzias Mitzrayim, our miraculous redemption from Egyptian slavery, bring to the fore the occurrence of miracles. While we are unused to open and nature-defying miracles of the type experienced in Egypt or recorded elsewhere in Tanach, this does not mean that our world is bereft of miracles. We live under the direct supervision of Hashem, and we thank Him daily “for the miracles that are with us each day” – events and occurrences that He brings us.
Talking of miracles leads us to the halachic issue that will be discussed below: praying for (and benefiting from) miracles. Hashem guides and supervises us through the channels of nature. Yet, on occasion, we reach a “natural dead end” – for example, when doctors have lost hope, when the submission is just too late, or when the bank account is empty and payment due. At this point, we may wish to supplicate Hashem for something that is beyond the natural, for a miracle.
Is it permitted to pray for a miracle, an event that transcends the ordinary ways of the natural world? Why is such a prayer considered problematic? Is there a difference between a prayer on behalf of an individual, and one on behalf of the entire nation? And may one pray for miracles in general, rather than a specific miraculous occurrence?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Praying for a Miracle
The Gemara (Berachos 60a) teaches that during the first forty days after conception, one may daven that the fetus should be a boy. Post forty days, however, the Gemara writes that this is a tefillas shav – a prayer in vain. Since by this time the gender of the infant is already determined, there is no room for such a prayer.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 230) rules accordingly that one must refrain from such prayers: “Somebody who prays for something in the past, such as somebody who enters a city and hears a cry of anguish, upon which he prays that the cry should not be from his own home, or somebody whose wife is pregnant and is after forty days of conception and prays that his child should be a male – this is a prayer in vain.” The Shulchan Aruch concludes that a person should “pray for the future and give thanks for the past.”
The above Gemara asks that we find that Leah prayed for the fetus she was pregnant with to change from a boy to a girl, so that her sister Rachel would be able to bear two sons for Yaakov. The Gemara responds with two explanations: One is that “this was within forty days,” and the other is that “even though it was after forty days, we do not learn from miraculous happenings, and the lives of our holy Fathers were all miracles.”
We can therefore derive that it is improper to pray for something that is openly miraculous. For a girl to change into a boy (or vice versa) would of course be openly miraculous, and therefore this is an improper prayer—a prayer in vain. This explanation (for why we do not pray for a male child forty days after conception) is given by the Vilna Gaon (cited in Imrei Noam on the above Gemara), and by the Bechor Shor (Shabbos 21b; cited by the Shaarei Teshuvah 187:2): One should not daven for a miracle that violates the laws of nature.
Individual or Communal
The Kol Bo states that if a person forgot to say the Al Hanissim prayer during birkas hamazon, he should add a special HaRachaman addition at the end of bentching, which beseeches Hashem to “perform miracles for us as He did in those days.” (Following this, he should complete the full Al Hanissim.)
The request that Hashem perform miracles for us, as He did for our ancestors in their times, is not agreed upon by all authorities. The Maharam of Rotenberg, among others, writes that this should not be requested, since it is improper to daven for miracles. However, Avudraham confirms that the prayer is found in the Yemenite siddur. In fact, a similar prayer is mentioned in Maseches Sofrim, Chap. 20. It is also mentioned by the Rema (Orach Chaim 187:4, 682:1). How can this prayer for miracles be justified, given that it is generally wrong to pray for a miracle?
The Bechor Shor (ibid., as cited by Shaarei Teshuva 187:2) addresses this question, and distinguishes between an individual, who should refrain from praying for miracles, and the general community, for whom it is correct to ask for miracles. He explains that the reason one should not daven for miracles is the unworthiness of the petitioner. Since he is not worthy of a miracle, the prayer is in vain and therefore inappropriate. As the Magen Avraham (230:1) implies, praying for a late-term baby to change from a girl to a boy is simply praying for something impossible.
By contrast, when it comes to the community as a whole or the entire Jewish People, the prayer for a miracle is not in vain, since the collective merits of the entire Jewish People could render them worthy of a miracle.
In a similar vein, the Bechor Shor writes that it is therefore permitted for an outstanding individual, somebody who is a gavra rabba, a great person, to pray for a miracle, since his remarkable merit could be sufficient to justify the supernatural. This is the way the Chefetz Hashem explains the answer of the Gemara that we can’t learn a general rule from the behavior of Leah.
Public and Private Miracles
The Yeshuos Yaakov (682:2) suggests a different reason it is improper to daven for a miracle. The Gemara in Taanis (20b) writes that a person should refrain from deriving benefit from a miracle, and that doing so reduces one’s merits. As Rashi writes (Taanis 24b), “It is forbidden for a person to derive benefit from a miracle, and if a miracle is performed for him this diminishes his merits.”
Based on this assumption, the Yeshuos Yaakov distinguishes between a neis nistar, a miracle that is hidden, and a neis nigleh, a miracle that is open and revealed. Benefiting from a hidden miracle will diminish a person’s merit, and therefore he should not pray for such a miracle. However, a public miracle will not result in a diminishing of a person’s merits, since on the contrary, the Kiddush Hashem involved in the public miracle augments a person’s merits.
It is therefore permitted to daven for a public miracle, which involves a Kiddush Hashem, and this is what we do in the supplication mentioned by the Rema. The Yeshuos Yaakov brings a source to his approach from the war fought by Avraham Avinu against the four kings. Chazal mention that Avraham was concerned lest his merits should become depleted, yet Hashem comforted him that this was not the case.
A similar approach is mentioned by Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Moadim Uzemanim 2:148), who writes that the prayer in place of Al Hanissim beseeches Hashem to act on behalf of His own Name, and therefore this does not involve the kind of miracle that one should refrain from asking for.
General and Specific Miracles
Rav Moshe Sternbuch suggests an additional distinction that can explain our custom to daven for miracles such as those of the Hasmoneans. He explains that although it is wrong to pray for a particular miracle, it is permitted to ask generally for miracles, provided no mention is made of a specific miraculous event.
He emphasizes that every person goes through trials and tribulations in the course of his life, and he will usually be able to note some special supervision of Hashem that guided him in times of need. Thus, there is no prohibition to ask for miracles in general, and this is what we do on Chanukah, asking Hashem to perform miracles for us as He did for our ancestors. It is only problematic to beseech Hashem for a specific miracle.
Another distinction is suggested by the Einayim Lamishpat (Berachos 60a). Based on another passage of the Gemara (Berachos 10a), where we find that a person should not lose hope of Divine mercy even if a sword is placed upon his neck, he explains that there is a difference between a miracle that a person needs for the sake of his very life, and a miracle that is not absolutely necessary. It is permitted to daven for a miracle that a person requires for his most basic salvation. It is not permitted to daven for a miracle that will be helpful, but not essential.
Davening for the Sick
Is it permitted to daven for somebody who is terminally ill, to the degree that doctors have lost all hope of recovery? Is this considered davening for a miracle, and forbidden—if we discount the distinction between life-threatening and non-life-threatening situations—or is this permitted?
Sefer Toldos Yaakov (p. 118) writes in the name of the Steipler (Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky zt”l) that the custom is to daven even for somebody who doctors have given up hope for, based on past experience which demonstrates that sometimes a person nonetheless merits a return to good health, or at the very least merits to live far longer than doctors predict. He adds that the prayer can also assist in diminishing the ill person’s suffering, or to extend his life even slightly.
Another incident noted by the same author is about the Chazon Ish, who was asked about davening for terminally ill cancer sufferers. He responded that there were cases in which doctors gave a person just a few days to live, and he ultimately lived for another thirty years, so that this is not considered praying for a miracle.
We have seen that, generally speaking, it is wrong to pray for something that requires a miracle, and that one should refrain from doing so. Nonetheless, in the light of precedents for such prayers, Poskim suggest numerous distinctions that can permit prayer for a miracle: the difference between an individual need and a national need, between a private and a public miracle, and so on. Note that the entire issue relates to actual miracles, meaning deviations from the regular natural order of the world. However, we have a mitzvah to pray that Hashem should supervise and guide us through the trials and tribulations of our lives. Such supervision is with us always, and we are required to daven for such “hidden miracles.”