When He made the sea and dry land, He stipulated that the sea should divide for Moses and the Children of Israel to cross. When he made the sun and moon, He stipulated that they should stand still for Joshua. When he made the birds, He stipulated that the ravens should feed Elijah.
He stipulated with the fire not to harm Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah; with the lions not to injure Daniel; with the sky to open up for Ezekiel; and with the fish to vomit forth Jonah (Gen. R. 5:6).
Rabbi Yirmiyahu was, in Israel Zangwill’s words, not a “fantastic fool” but a “subtle philosopher”. He appears to be indulging in fables, but in fact he is giving us an approach to the existence of miracles.
How can the miracles of the Bible have occurred? How can they be reconciled with the laws of nature? Do seas really divide, do donkeys speak, or city walls fall down?
The rabbinic answer is that when the laws of nature were laid down at the moment of creation, God also provided for the exceptions to the rules.
As Maimonides put it, “From the very beginning of Creation, God included in the nature of every created thing whatever He was going to do with it – whether it would always behave uniformly and hence in accordance with the laws of nature, or act extraordinarily, that is, be a miracle.”
Though Rabbi Yirmiyahu thought this was done stage by stage during the course of Creation, the sages of Pirkei Avot (5:9) said that it was on the first Erev Shabbat at twilight that God created the “phenomena that seemed to partake at once of the natural and the supernatural” (S. Singer).
Louis Jacobs makes a significant distinction between two types of miracle in Jewish thinking.
There is the general phenomenon of miracles, and there are individual miracles. Judaism has a general belief in miracles. But, says Jacobs, “Jews are far less committed to the belief that a particular miracle occurred than are Christians whose faith depends on it”.
Thus a Jew who rejects miracles as a whole would be an unbeliever, but a Jew who questions a particular miracle would not.