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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
April 3, 2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

We are all familiar with the word that forms the basis of this subject: nes. It is the first word of the official Chanukkah slogan, "nes gadol haya sham," and so the first word represented on the dreidel. And almost always we translate it as "miracle." In fact, the bilingual misunderstanding of the name of instant coffee marketed by Swiss chocolatier Nestle Nescafe has made it a major brand in Israel, where it translates as "Miracle Coffee."

It is worth asking however briefly what exactly is a miracle. Miracle has become one of those words that has lost its specific meaning by overuse and hyperbole. People even speak of "continuing miracles" much as they refer to "an ongoing crisis" or something that is "very unique." A miracle is something that occurs against expectations and pessimistic logic. And it implies that something other than nature and nature's laws are at play. That is, God's participation in upending the natural order of things is necessarily part of a miracle. When David slew Goliath, yes, that was a miracle. When God gave us manna in the wilderness, that was a miracle, too. When the American Olympic hockey team beat the Russians at Lake Placid, that was a real miracle.

Nes can also mean "banner" or "flag." It is not the same as the flag of a country, or the banner under which the twelve tribes marched in the wilderness. It is closer in meaning to that little red symbol that appears next to certain email messages that make them stand out from the others. A nes marks something as worthy of special notice. It may be, but is not necessarily, supernatural. It may be simply beyond the usual. And it is almost always good.

So if I were to choose a translation, much less compact than "miracle," I would choose "extraordinary wonderful." The word "extraordinary" conveys something that is not usual literally other than ordinary. The word "wonderful" carries the dual meaning of delightful and inspiring of reflection. The email with the flag may or may not be delightful, but it is out of the ordinary and intriguing. And the nes (plural, nissim) that we experience each day might fall short of miraculous, but still demand our notice, our contemplation and, ultimately, our gratitude.

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