This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Natural Light*

On the face of it, there is no Jewish holiday whose theme is as unambiguous as that of Hanukkah. The specific historical events that are commemorated on this festival are subject to a rare consensus of the rabbinic and the external records. The Talmud, the traditional liturgy and the Books of Maccabees all describe how, on the 25th day of Kislev, the Temple was purified after its defilement by the Hellenists.

And yet, I suppose, there are always some people who are intrinsically suspicious of anything that seems too straightforward. The scholarly milieu (of which, I must confess, I am not always proud to be a member) has a tendency to dismiss the obvious, and to seek out innovative and unlikely theories. Admittedly, the most outrageous hypotheses about the origins of Hanukkah were promulgate almost a century ago; nevertheless, several of them still pop up occasionally in the scholarly literature

At one time it was very fashionable to approach all religious phenomena through the lens of classical anthropological theory. This discipline likes to reduce human culture to its primitive fundamentals. Noting that most of the biblical holy days commemorate agricultural stages as well as historical events, it was widely assumed that the earliest form of Israelite worship was focused on nature, and that the historical themes were grafted on at a later stage in the development of the religion. For some scholars, consistency demanded that the same pattern be applied without exception to all the holidays. Consequently, they argued, the same pattern must be true for Hanukkah: Before it acquired its familiar meaning as the anniversary of the victory over Greek religious oppression, it must have previously existed as a nature festival.

Furthermore, the theory went, there is something fishy about the date of Hanukkah. According to the Book of Maccabees, 25 Kislev was not only the day on which the Jews offered their sacrifices on the new altar--but it was exactly the same date on which it had been originally profaned two years previously.

While the ancient chroniclers were suitably impressed with the appropriateness of the timing, more recent scholars found in it grounds to doubt the whole story. After all, neat coincidences like this never occur in real life, do they? Obviously, this must be a literary flourish by later writers who wanted to show the symmetry of divine justice. The date must have had a previous importance that was now being reinterpreted.

It now became possible to turn the whole question on its head: The primary importance of Hanukkah was not defined by the Hasmonean victory at all, but by Antiochus when he originally chose the date to impose the heathen cult in Jerusalem. Perhaps he was the one who attached religious significance to that date. It would have been even more convenient for his purposes if he could choose a date that already had some importance among the Jewish peasantry.

All this served to reinforce our skeptical scholars in their conviction that Hanukkah originated as a pagan celebration. Once they were committed to this approach, virtually every detail could be construed as a confirmation of the theory, even if it involved some very circular reasoning.

If we buy into the assumption that Hanukkah was a pagan-style nature festival, then what exactly was it supposed to be commemorating? The answer to this question is a simple one. The date it reasonably close to the winter solstice (which falls around Dec. 22 in the Gregorian calendar). Ergo, that must have been Hanukkah's original purpose. It therefore represents the shift in the relationship between light and darkness. Until the solstice, the days were becoming shorter and the nights longer. From this point onwards, the light begins to overtake the darkness.

Of course, we have to make a few allowances for the fact that the traditional Jewish calendar uses lunar months, so that the dates will not dovetail with precision--and Hanukkah would not necessarily coincide with the solstice. But such an attractive theory should not be broadsided by such petty objections. Quite the contrary, we know that the Roman Saturnalia, which came to be observed as a winter solstice festival, became associated with December 25 (though its original date was on the 17th) and was celebrated with lights or torches, as were the rituals of many other peoples of the world for various solstices and equinoxes. For the anthropologically inclined, this provided another neat example or a pagan holiday that was later transformed into a historical commemoration.

And if that was not enough to clinch the argument, how about the following argument?: Unless we assume that Hanukkah was a solstice holiday, we would be forced to assert that no celebration existed for this important milestone in the annual Jewish calendar--though we do have Passover and Sukkot to mark the spring and autumn equinoxes. Such an omission in the Jewish calendar is unimaginable!

Josephus Flavius, writing in the latter part of the first century, mentions that Hanukkah was known as the festival of light; but seems uncertain why. This would imply that in his time the holiday was not yet associated, as it was for the rabbis, with the Temple menorah or the miracle of the oil. Our scholars were, of course, quick to jump on this detail as proof that Hanukkah's connection with light had nothing to do with lamps or candelabra, but rather with the variations in the course of the solar cycle.

For others, the association of Hanukkah with the solstice provided a handy explanation for the well-known dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, about whether the lamps should be kindled in decreasing or increasing sequence. Both positions could now be viewed as preserving a piece of the full original ritual: Until the solstice, the number of lamps would decrease from one day to the next, to reflect the shortening of the daylight hours; and afterwards, the number would increase as the days grew longer. Isn't it obvious, once you think of it?

Some Christian scholars were impelled by additional considerations. There is something embarrassing about the conventional historical claim that the Roman church, as late as the fourth century, borrowed the date for its commemoration of Jesus' birth from an earlier pagan holiday, such as the Saturnalia or the feast of the Invincible Sun. Therefore,

a considerable amount of scholarly energy was devoted to demonstrating that in this matter the church was rooted in an ancient Jewish practice; and that Jews of pre-Christian times had already been observing a mid-winter festival with messianic overtones. The older solstice celebration of the triumph of light over darkness suggested motifs of spiritual transformation; and the Hasmonean adoption of this date to glorify their own claims to the throne of Israel provided a fitting paradigm for the development of Christmas. One influential scholar even suggested in all seriousness that the name Hanukkah was rooted in the biblical figure of Hanokh (Enoch), who was one of the most popular heroes in Apocalyptic visions of the ultimate redemption!

It should be noted that the association between Hanukkah and the winter solstice did find its way into traditional Jewish writings as well, at least as a secondary theme. The Maharal of Prague calculated in meticulous detail that, since rabbinic chronology equated the creation of initial light, on the first Sunday of the world's existence, with the 25th of Elul (so that the first humans would be fashioned on Friday, Rosh Hashanah)--it follows that the primordial winter solstice would have fallen on the 25th of Kislev.

Maharal dwells at length on how this cosmic symbolism provides a fitting metaphor for the rededication of the Temple, the divine instrument through which spiritual light radiates through the murky ignorance of the world.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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