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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
An event which can not be explained by ordinary natural agencies, and which, therefore, is taken as an act of a higher power.
Miracles are by no means identical with myths. Myths are primitive or pagan personifications (or rather deifications) of the powers, or forms of nature, represented as acting like human beings. Miracles, on the contrary, place all things in nature under the control of a higher power, which uses them as means of working out its holier designs; they are, therefore, essentially monotheistic. It is true, however, that ancient myths have frequently been transformed in support of the monotheistic idea into miracles performed by prophet or saint (see Steinthal, "Mythe und Religion").
In the Bible every occurrence which contrasts with the ordinary happenings of life is counted a miracle or wonder. It is by the wonders which the Lord did in Egypt (Exodus 3:20, 7:3, 11:9; Deuteronomy 4:34, 6:22, 7:19, 26:8, 29:2; Judges 6:13; Jeremiah 32:20,21; Psalms 78:43, 106:7) that His power was made known. He alone " does wonders" (Exodus 15:11; Psalms 72:18, 86:10); there is nothing "too wonderful" (Genesis 18:14; Jeremiah 32:17,27 [A. V. "too hard"]) for Him. He worked wonders for Israel as for no other nation (Exodus 34:10; Joshua 3:5). But He works wonders without number in the natural world also (Job 5:9, 37:14; Psalms 107:24). As a matter of fact, every occurrence in nature is, in the Biblical view, an act of God. He sends the rain and causes the thunder (Job 37:4-6); "He bringeth out the stars by number" (Isa. 26, Hebr.); every work of creation is an act of His providence (Psalms 104). Yet only an uncommon or inexplicable event makes man ponder and see "the finger of God" (Exodus 8:15); God must "make a new thing" in order to make men know that He rules (Numbers 16:30). The rain, hail, fire, and brimstone that are treasured up in the heavens must come down in an unusual time and quantity to destroy the evil-doers (Genesis 20:24; Exodus 9:22-24; Joshua 10:11; comp. Psalms 18:13 [A. V. 12]; Job 37:6, 38:22); the waters of the sea and the river must leave the place assigned to them to show His might (Exodus 14:21-27; Joshua 3:13-16); and sun, moon, and stars must be stayed in their course to show that God battles for Israel (Joshua 10:10-14; Judges 5:20).
The miracles of the Bible are performed either directly by the Deityâto manifest His punitive justice, as in the cases of Sodom, of Egypt, of the Canaanites or Assyrians, or of individuals, such as Abimelech, Korah, Uzza, and others (Genesis 19:24; Exodus 8-; Joshua 6-; 2 Kings 19:35; Genesis 12:17; Numbers 17; 2 Samuel 6:7), or to protect His chosen ones, as in the furnishing of water, bread, and meat to Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 15:23, 17:7; Numbers 12:31), to Samson and Elijah (Judges 15:19; 1 Kings 17:6, 19:5)âor by the messengers of God in order to prove their divine calling (Exodus 4:1-17; Deuteronomy 34:11; 2 Kings 2-). Every theophany, in fact, is a miracle (Exodus 16:7-13, 21:17-19; Judges 6:21-22), and accordingly the revelation of the Lord on Sinai is the greatest of miracles (Deuteronomy 4:32-36). A literal belief in the Torah, therefore, necessarily implies a belief in the miracles told therein.
Belief in Miracles.
Nevertheless, the Torah itself lays down the principle that miracles are no test of the truth of the thing for which their testimony is invoked. The Deuteronomic law says: "If a prophet arise among you who giveth a sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder comes to pass, but he desires to lead you into idolatry, thou shalt not hearken to that prophet, for the Lord your God trieth you whether you truly love the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 13:2-4, Hebr. [A. V. 1-3]). This is a plain statement that miracles do not prove a religious truth, as they are performed also in the cause of untruth.
Miracle has justly been called "des Glauben's liebstes Kind" (the dearest child of faith). The belief in God's omnipotence and all-encompassing providence necessitates at a certain stage of religious consciousness the belief in miracles, that is, in supernatural help in times of great stress or peril. To deny the possibility of miracles appears to the believing soul to be tantamount to a denial of the absolute omnipotence of God. "Is anything impossible to God?" "Is the Lord's hand waxed short?" (Genesis 18:14, Hebr.; Numbers 11:23) are questions asked ever anew by helpless man. Talmudic Judaism, therefore, accepts all the miracles related in the Bible, but at the same time it does not emphasize belief in them as fundamental to the faith. What Paul says of the Jews, "they seek signs while the Greeks seek wisdom" (1 Corinthians 1:22, Greek), is certainly not true of the representatives and exponents of Judaism. Miracles, which occupy so conspicuous a place in the New Testament and in the history of Christianity, are viewed as matters of secondary importance throughout the rabbinical literature.
The Talmudic sages made the very possibility of miracles a matter of speculation, stating that "when God created the world He made an agreement that the sea would divide, the fire not hurt, the lions not harm, the fish not swallow persons singled out by God for certain times, and thus the whole order of things changes whenever He finds it necessary" (Gen. R. 5:4; Ex. R. 21:6). This view removes some of the objections to miracles as involving an interruption of the order of creation and as an admission of the insufficiency of the first creative act. In the same spirit the Rabbis, in the Mishnah (Ab. 5:6; comp. Ab. R. N., Text B, [ed. Schechter, p. 95]; Sifre, Deut. 355; Pirá¸³e R. El.; Targ. Yer. to Numbers 22:28), enumerate the things created at dusk on the Sabbath of the week of creation, and that would appear in due time as miraculous works: the mouth of the earth (Numbers 16:30); the mouth of the well (ib. 21:17); the mouth of the ass (ib. 22:28); the bow (Genesis 9:13); the manna; the rod (Exodus 4:17); the tables of the Law; and so on. The underlying ideaof these utterances is that miracles, instead of being interruptions of the divine order of things, are in reality foreordained by the creative Wisdom and appear only to man as something new.
The Rabbis prescribe benedictions to be recited when approaching places made memorable by miraculous events (Ber. 9:1,53b-54a); they speak of miracles which occurred continuously during the time of the Temple (Ab. 5:5; Yoma 21a, b); they knew of saints to whom, as to the Prophets of old, miracles were of daily occurrence ("melummadim be-nissim"; Ta'an. 21-25; á¸¤ul. 7a; see see ESSENES). Nevertheless, they pay little heed to the power of miracles. Simeon b. Shetaá¸¥ threatened Onias the saint with excommunication for his demonstrative appeal to God to send down the rain in a miraculous manner (Ta'an. 3:8). When asked by the Romans, "If your God is as omnipotent as you claim, why does He not destroy the idols?" the Jewish sages replied, "Shall God destroy sun, moon, and stars on account of the fools that worship them? The world goes on in its order, and the idolaters shall meet with their doom" ('Ab. Zarah 4:7). When Pappus and Lulianus were asked by their Roman executioners, "Why does your God not save you as He did the three youths in Nebuchadnezzar's time?" they replied, "We are probably not worthy of such a miracle" (Ta'an. 18b).
The current belief of the Talmudic time is that only former generations, because of their greater piety, were worthy of miracles occurring on their account (Ber. 4a, 20a; Sanh. 94b). "One should by no means incur perils while relying for safety upon the occurrence of a miracle" (Pes. 50b; Ta'an. 20b; Ket. 61b). That miracles should not be invoked as testimony in favor of one religious opinion as against another is the principle asserted in a halakic controversy between R. Eliezer and R. Joshua (B. M. 59b; "The Torah is not in heaven that the decision should be made there"). The daily wonders of divine providence are extolled by some rabbis above the Biblical miracles: "Greater is the miracle that occurs when a sick person escapes from perilous disease than that which happened when Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah escaped from the fiery furnace" (Ned. 41a). The wonder of the support of a family in the midst of great distress is as great as the wonder of the parting of the Red Sea for Israel (Pes. 118a).
The medieval Jewish philosophers endeavored as much as possible to bring the Biblical miracles within the sphere of natural occurrences, without, however, denying the possibility of miracle in general. Saadia, while accepting every word of the Torah as divine, insisted that the truth of the Bible rests upon reason, and wherever the Bible seems to be in conflict with reason the words must be taken in a metaphorical sense ("'Emunot we-De'ot," 2:44,68); he therefore substituted for the speech of the serpent (Genesis 3:1) and of Balaam's ass (Numbers 22:28) that of the angel (Ibn Ezra to Genesis 3:1). Maimonides, while maintaining against the Aristotelian view of the unalterable law of necessity ruling nature the absolute freedom of the Creator which makes miracle possible, finds at the same time in the rabbinical utterances quoted above (Gen. R. and Ab. 5:6) support for his view that the Creator implanted the powers of miracle in nature, so that in reality God did not effect any change after creation ("Moreh," 2:25,29, and comment to Ab. 5:6; comp. JoÃ«l, "Moses Maimonides," 1876, p. 77; Lipmann Heller to Ab. c.). With finer acumen Gersonides discussed the problem of miracles in the last part of his "Milá¸¥amot" (LEVI BEN GERSHON), ascribing them to the divine intelligence which foreordains all things, but denying the actuality of the performance within a given time. This is opposed by Crescas, who nevertheless takes miracles as prearranged in the divine plan of creation ("Or Adonai," 3:1:5). In the "Yad" (Yesode ha-Torah, 8:1-3) Maimonides declares that the belief in Moses and his law was based on the actual revelation of God on Sinai and by no means on the miracles performed; since miracles may be the work of witchcraft and of other non-divine agencies, they can not be accepted as proof. This position is taken also by Albo ("'Iá¸³á¸³arim," 1:18).
Consequently miracles are never adduced in support of the faith by Jewish writers; and Mendelssohn, in his answer to Bonnet, who referred to the miracles of the New Testament as proof of the truth of Christianity, was perfectly justified in declaring in the name of Judaism that miracles may be appealed to in support of every religion and that therefore they can not serve as proof of any (Mendelssohn, "Gesammelte Schriften," 3:123 et seq., 311). Modern historical research can no longer, says JoÃ«l (see "Jahrb. fÃ¼r JÃ¼dische Gesch. und Litteratur," 1904, pp. 70-73), view the narratives of the Bible in the same light as did the medieval thinkers who could not discriminate between the objectivity of the facts narrated and the subjectivity of the narrator.
- Das Wunder in Seinem VerhÃ¤ltnisse zur Religion, in JÃ¼disches Literaturblatt, 1:77-93.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Sign'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/s/sign.html. 1901.