A Very Pagan Hanukkah

 

Today is the fifth day of Hanukkah if you are reading this after sunset (which you probably are, since I didn’t post it until after sunset.) This is a special day of this eight day holiday because it is the first day in which we have more light than darkness. When we light the candles corresponding to the day of the holiday, we also have empty holes on the menorah corresponding with the days left. The fifth day is the first day when we have more candles than empty holes.

The stories of why we celebrate Hanukkah are well known. How the Maccabees led a revolt against King Antiochus who put severe restrictions on Jewish practice, and how that revolt was eventually successful. And how, upon entering the Temple to rededicate it after it had been defiled, the Maccabees only found one day’s worth of oil that ended up burning for eight.

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But perhaps the most basic story, the most visceral aspect of Hanukkah, is that we hold a festival during the darkest time of year. This is a story in and of itself, that facing a dark time of year, a community responds by creating light.

Indeed, a passage from our Talmud hints at this:

When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, “Such is the way of the world,” and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity. The following years he observed both the eight days preceding and the eight days following the solstice as days of festivity. (Avodah Zarah 8a)

The Talmud describes an eight day festival around the time of the winter solstice. And so while much is made about the pagan roots of Christmas trees, we should not neglect to notice the pagan roots of Hanukkah. And by pagan, I mean a recognition of and ritual acknowledgement of the natural cycles of the world. Judaism is rooted in earth-based spirituality.

We can imagine the sentiment expressed by Adam in this midrash (commentary). We can imagine what it must have been like to be the first human on earth, noticing the shortening of the days as summer turned into fall turned into winter. And we can imagine the fear that must bring, to think that darkness is going to be overwhelming the light, how that is a “the death heaven has decreed.” And then to imagine what it must have been like to then see the days growing longer, and to know that it is not the death of the world, but its rebirth.

We can agree with the rabbis: this cycle of darkness and light is worthy of celebration.

As our calendar is lunar-based, we don’t acknowledge the solstice per se. But Hanukkah does run through Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month, which is marked by the new moon. And the new moon means no moon. So Hanukkah does run over the new moon that is closest to the solstice, or, in other words, over the darkest night of the year that is closest to the longest night of the year.

[And in an interesting bit of weather related news for our geographic region, it was reported that Seattle is also seeing its darkest days in nine years.]

So while we often speak of Hanukkah as marking a revolution and a rededication, we can also celebrate Hanukkah as a rebirth—the rebirth of our world as we cycle through the seasons. (And interestingly the next holiday after Hanukkah is Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees, celebrating new buds and growth.) Days will soon grow longer, the amount of light will increase. This is “the way of the world,” and for that we are grateful.

And as we move towards the end of Hanukkah, we look upon the menorah and see that the light is increasing. As we look upon the menorah, at least for this night, when the light is greater than the darkness, let’s not think of Maccabees and swords, or jars and seals. Let’s think of the light itself, and how it brings us comfort and security, how we welcome back the lengthening of days, and how we, in our power, light up the darkness that surrounds us.

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