This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Menorah and the Magi*

In contemporary North America, Hanukkah is probably the Jewish holiday that has received the most widespread acceptance from the general public. It is acknowledged in the communications media and at the greeting-card counters, and menorahs are lit ceremoniously in public places.

This has not always been the case. Although in ancient decrees of religious persecutions (e.g., under the Roman Emperor Hadrian or the Byzantine church) the celebration of Hanukkah or the kindling of its lamps were not usually singled out as prohibited acts, there have been times in our history when the observance of this holiday could entail grave dangers.

Such a situation is alluded to in the Babylonian Talmud where the following question is posed: "Is it permissible to remove a Hanukkah lamp on account of the `Habbars' on the Sabbath?" The assumption underlying the query is that the opposition of Habbars to the Hanukkah lights was intense enough to constitute a serious threat to Jewish lives, thereby justifying a relaxation of the prohibitions against handling fire on the Sabbath.

Who were these "Habbars"? The term is apparently taken from the Biblical word designating a practitioner of charms and magic, but was applied by the Babylonian rabbis to the Zoroastrian Mazdean priesthood--the "Magi"--whose religion was the dominant one in Babylonia throughout most of the Talmudic era. The kindling and possession of fire raised some touchy problems with respect to some central pillars of their faith.

The severity of the problem is evident from a story that is related elsewhere in the Talmud, in which a third-century rabbi was lying in his sick-bed in the company of some colleagues when a Habbar burst in and snatched away his bedside lamp, prompting the Jewish sage to quip: "Merciful God, it would be preferable to live under Thy shade, or even in the shade of the children of Esau (i.e., the Romans)"! Though the lamp in this story was not a Hanukkah menorah, it was nevertheless considered an affront to the Habbar.

As the Talmud's commentators would explain, the problem had nothing to do with the religious character of Hanukkah, or with its themes of religious and national freedom. It was the fire itself that lay at the root of the antagonism.

The preservation of a sacred fire was a central feature of Iranian religion. It was a priestly duty to maintain the flames, usually in special fire-temples devoted to that purpose. There existed a hierarchy of different flames, and although lower flames (like the human spirit) could be upgraded by being brought to a higher flame, the opposite was strictly forbidden. The fires that burned in individual hearths were allowed only insofar as they were subordinated to the next-higher flame, and so on..

A medieval Ga'on, a successor to the Babylonian rabbis who still possessed traditions about the circumstances of earlier generations, wrote about how "during the reign of the Persians the Habbars would make the rounds of all the Jewish households, where they would extinguish the lamps and gather the embers, which they would bring to their idolatrous fire-temple. They would not allow leave either the fires or the coals to burn through the night except for those which they kept in the temples." The Talmud elsewhere tells of the vials and bellows that would be used by the Mazdean priests in order convey the flames that had been profaned by infidels in order to refine them in the sacred flame at the temple of Varahran.

Another Ga'on linked the Talmudic stories with a particular Zoroastrian festival observed in his own days, known as Sadah or Sadag. The origins and precise date of this holiday are not completely known, but it is described in the ancient sources as a winter fire-festival, designed to encourage the sun to prevail over the winter cold and darkness, which they perceived symbolically as the embodiment of Ahriman the god of evil. The ceremonious kindling of fires was central to its observance, and we may readily appreciate how the Jews' public kindling of their own fires at that season could be seen as a profanation of their rites.

The historical context for these events is well-known to scholars. Until the beginning of the third centuries the Jews of Babylonia lived under the tolerant rule of the Parthians who were scrupulous not to interfere with the religious and legal autonomy of the various ethnic groups who inhabited their empire. That situation came to an end with the rise to power of Persian Sasanian dynasty whose emperors saw it as their sacred duty to promote the ancient faith of Zoroaster. Although the Jews were usually able to maintain good relations with the ruling powers, there were times when the missionary zeal of the Persian priesthood constituted a serious threat.

The most formidable champion of militant Mazdaism was Kartir who strove to make his faith the only legal religion throughout the Persian empire. Towards that end he gave high priority to the establishment of many new fire temples. Although initially his fanaticism held in check by the kings, by the end of the third century he was given free reign and encouragement in his activities. In a monumental inscription that has been preserved, Kartir boasts of his effective persecution of the Jews and other religious communities. Under this kind of atmosphere the joyous lighting of a menorah could become an act fraught with peril.

Nevertheless, then as at other times, the Jews were somehow able to weather the crisis, and the Hanukkah flames eventually succeeded in outlasting the cultic flames of their opponents

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:


  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, December 19, 1997, p. 18.

  • Bibliography:
    • R. N. Frye, The Heritage of Persia, London, 1962.
    • I. M. Gafni, The Jews of Babylonia in the Talmudic Era, Jerusalem, 1990
    • J. Neusner, A History of the Jews of Babylonia: The Early Sasanian Period, Leiden, 1966
    • E. S. Rosenthal, "For the Talmudic Dictionary--Talmudica Iranica," in: S. Shaked, ed., Irano-Judaica I, Jerusalem, 1982.
    • E. Yarshater, ed., The Cambridge History of Iran, Cambridge, 1983.