This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Debatable Dates*

Thanks to such distinguished institutions as the University of Chicago's "Great Latka-Hamantasch Debate," the literary genre of debates about the superiority of Hanukkah has achieved some recognition among the general public. In reality, disputations of this sort have deeper roots in older customs and writings associated with the Jewish festival cycle.

A modest example of the genre appears in the "Mahzor Romaniah," the venerable liturgical rite of the Greek Jewish community. The author of this rhymed debate, whose identity is revealed in an internal acrostic, was Rabbi Solomon ben Elijah Sharvit-Hazzahav--the impressive Hebrew family name translates as "the golden scepter." Rabbi Solomon maintained a relatively obscure profile in the realm of Hebrew letters. He lived in the fourteenth century in Turkey and Greece, where he composed assorted works of religious polemic, astronomy, grammar and literary theory. Several of his poems were included in the Mahzor Romania.

Among Sharvit-Hazzahav's surviving liturgical poems is one entitled "Debate between the Sabbath and Hanukkah." It was probably intended to be read, or sung, on the Saturday that falls during Hanukkah.

The choice of such a subject initially strikes us as very odd, given the ostensibly unequal relationship between the two holidays. After all, Shabbat is a fundamental biblical institution with profound theological significance and elaborate laws and rituals; while Hanukkah is a relatively minor post-biblical historical celebration.

In fact, Rabbi Solomon probably did not conceive of this poem as a separate creation, but rather as an addendum to an earlier work by one of his favourite medieval poets, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra had composed a more ambitious "Debate between the Sabbath and the Festivals" that dealt with all the other holidays of the Hebrew calendar. For whatever reason, Hanukkah had been omitted from that poem, so Rabbi Solomon took it upon himself to fill in the lacuna by composing his own poetic dispute according to the same formal conventions that were used by Ibn Ezra.

As was the normal convention in Hebrew liturgical poetry, the text of this debate is replete with biblical quotes and indirect allusions to scripture. The author takes the role of the judge of the dispute. The personified holidays approach his bench as litigants, each claiming to be the most important.

The Sabbath proudly introduces itself as the most ancient of holy days, commemorating God's creation of the universe. It dismissively contrasts its distinguished pedigree with that of the upstart Hanukkah, the most recent addition to the Jewish calendar.

Anticipating a line of argument that is used nowadays to argue why Hanukkah is superior to Christmas, Hanukkah counters with the fact that it extends for a full eight days, in comparison with the measly one day of the Sabbath. Furthermore, Hanukkah's joyful status is recognized by the fact that the Hallel psalms are recited on all eight days, a practice that has no counterpart on Shabbat.

To those arguments, the Sabbath counters that the Torah honoured it with the special Musaf sacrifices that were offered in the Temple, as well as the corresponding Additional Service in the liturgy.

Hanukkah then retorts that Jewish law gives precedence to its lamps over those of the Sabbath, since on Friday evening the Hanukkah lights must be kindled before the Sabbath ones. Of course, this argument might easily have been used to support the opposite position; since the ultimate reason for this law is that, once the Sabbath has been initiated through the act of kindling, its greater sanctity would prohibit the lighting of a lesser fire on the holy day.

On the other hand, Hanukkah asserts that its candles are assigned a higher degree of sanctity according to religious law. As long as they are burning, we are strictly forbidden to derive any personal benefit from them because they have been devoted to the sacred purpose of publicizing the miracles of the holiday. In this respect they differ from the Sabbath candles, which are designed primarily to promote domestic harmony by providing light to guide the movements of the residents of the household. In the poem, this contrast is depicted metaphorically as the difference between an aristocratic lady who is there to be served by others, and a lowly servant who labours for others.

In a reversal of this imagery, the Sabbath takes proud satisfaction in the fact that it occurs in frequent weekly intervals, just as a man's legitimate wife consorts with him on a constant basis. By contrast, a festival that falls only once a year is analogous to a sordid liaison with a mistress or concubine whose relationship must be pursued in sporadic and surreptitious rendezvous.

After each of the holy days has had its chance to present its case and to refute that of its opponent, the dispute is left to the final decision of the author/judge. In keeping with the holiday spirit, the judge magnanimously declares that it would be inappropriate to exacerbate the differences by pronouncing a victory of one over the other--especially when the debate is taking place on the occasion when the two beloved holy days have converged.

Although he concedes that the Sabbath has a clear edge in terms of age and holiness, the matter should not be treated as a confrontational dispute. Instead, he commands them to set aside their hostilities, and to come together in love and harmony.

The author concludes with the timely observation, that it is only through mutual respect and concord that Israel can look forward to their imminent redemption.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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