Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The origins of Hanukah

A guest post by Lurker:

[Cross-posted at The Muqata]

Recently, DovBear invited us to have a look at this interesting article by Lawrence Keleman about the true origins of Christmas. Keleman argues that if Jews inclined to celebrate that holiday were aware of these origins, then they might be dissuaded from celebrating it. Keleman points out – quite correctly – that the early Christians did not choose December 25th because of any existing tradition that Jesus had been born on that day. Rather, they picked it because that was the concluding date of the Greco-Roman festival of Saturnalia, which commemorated the Winter Solstice. In other words, "Christmas" was already around for a very long time, in a somewhat different form, long before the Christians came along.

This, in turn, brings to mind the question of the origins of Hanukah. Interestingly, Hanukah also coincides with the Winter Solstice period. More significantly, it is eight days long – just like Saturnalia was. Was this a historical accident, or is there more significance to the time and length of this holiday? Were the Christians the only ones to adapt Saturnalia to their own needs? Or Does Hanukah, too, bear a connection to this ancient Solstice festival? DovBear says that there is indeed such a connection. Is he right?

Needless to say, many reasons have been offered over the years for Hanukah's date and length. Regarding the date (the 25th of Kislev): I Maccabees (1:59, 4:52-59) and II Maccabees (10:5-8) seem to suggest that this date was chosen deliberately for the rededication, since it was on that very date that Antiochus had desecrated the altar three years earlier. Others find a connection in the book of Hagai, which says that the foundation of the Second Temple was laid on the 24th of Kislev (or the 25th; see sources in Further information, below) (Hagai 2:10-19). And a midrash in the Yalkut Shimoni (I Melakhim 184) says that work on the Mishkan was completed on the 25th of Kislev, although the dedication ceremony was delayed until the 1st of Nisan.

As to why Hanukah is 8 days long: II Maccabees (1:9, 1:18, 10:5-8) says that Hanukah was intended to commemorate Sukkot – the holiday that the Greeks had recently prevented the Jews from celebrating – and which is 8 days long (when you include Shemini Atzeret). According to Pesikta Rabbati (ch. 2), the Hashmonaim, upon entering the liberated Temple, found 8 iron spears, which they thrust into the ground and made into an impromptu candelabra. And of course, there is the very famous (but historically questionable) story from the Talmud (TB Shabbat 21b) of the miraculous oil that burned for 8 days. But one is forced to wonder: Do any of these reasons really explain the establishment of an 8-day-long holiday? Megillat Taanit lists a great many days that were celebrated as holidays in early Second Temple times – and they are all just one day long, except for one: Hanukah. Let us assume for a moment that the miracle of the oil is the reason why Hanukah was established. Why does this justify the establishment of an 8-day-long holiday? Suppose the oil had burned for 50 days – would Hanukah then be 50 days long? It is reasonable to wonder whether there was already a pre-existing 8-day-long holiday, which was simply conflated with the new holiday of Hanukah.

The answer may be found in in the Gemara (TB Avodah Zarah 8a), which strongly suggests that the actual origin of Hanukah dates back to antiquity, long before the period of the Hashmonaim:

אמר רב חנן בר רבא: קלנדא ח' ימים אחר תקופה; סטרנורא ח' ימים לפני תקופה. וסימנך: "אחור וקדם צרתני", וגו' (תהילים קל"ט:ה').
ת"ר: לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך, אמר: "אוי לי, שמא בשביל שסרחתי, עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו, וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים!" עמד וישב ח' ימים בתענית [ובתפלה]. כיון שראה תקופת טבת, וראה יום שמאריך והולך, אמר: "מנהגו של עולם הוא". הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים. לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים. הוא קבעם לשם שמים, והם קבעום לשם עבודה זרה.

R. Hanan b. Rabba said: [The festival of] the Kalends [Roman New Year] is observed on the eight days following the [Winter] Solstice; [the festival of] Saturnalia on the eight days preceding the Solstice. As a mnemonic, use "From the back and the front you have afflicted me", etc. (Tehillim 139:5).
Our Rabbis taught [in a braita]: When Adam HaRishon observed the days getting increasingly shorter, he said, "Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world is darkening and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; and this is the death to which I have been sentenced from heaven!" He stopped, and sat for eight days engaged in fasting [and prayer]. But when he observed the Winter Solstice, and observed the days getting increasingly longer, he said, "This is the nature of the universe". He [therefore] went and celebrated eight festival days. In the following year he made both [of these eight-day holidays into permanent] festivals. He [Adam] established them for the sake of heaven, but they [of later generations] established them for the sake of idolatry.
One can hardly fail to recognize the obvious connection with Hanukah. The Gemara tells us that Adam HaRishon established an eight-day holiday (two, in fact) to be observed at the time of the Solstice, in celebration of the restoration of light. Furthermore, it tells us, these were the very holidays that eventually became known as the Greco-Roman festivals of Saturnalia and the Kalends. The Gemara is thus saying that the holiday we now know as Hanukah actually existed long before the Maccabees, for many centuries, as a Winter Solstice festival – the same Winter Solstice festival that was celebrated by the Greeks and Romans as Saturnalia.

The Hashmonaim later appropriated this holiday, and recast it for their own purposes as a celebration of their defeat of the Greeks and their rededication of the Temple. Significantly, the motif of "casting out darkness" and "restoring light" was retained. Perhaps, by appropriating a Greek holiday and turning it into a celebration of the Temple's rededication, the Hashmonaim were trying to express their victory over Hellenism. Or perhaps they simply recognized the fact that much of the assimilated Jewish populace would go on celebrating Saturnalia whether they liked it or not, and thus tried to co-opt the pagan holiday into a Jewish one.

In conclusion: The Gemara in Avodah Zarah shows us that the Hashmonaim "borrowed" the ancient Winter Solstice festival as a branch upon which to graft their own holiday – just as the Christians did a few centuries later.

Don't get me wrong – I certainly don't think a self-respecting Jew ought to celebrate Christmas. But I wouldn't tell a Jew not to celebrate it on account of its connection with Saturnalia. After all, Hanukah is clearly connected with it, too.

Further information:

For more information on the origins of Hanukah, I highly recommend the following excellent shiurim and articles. They all relate to the topic of this post, and considerably more, as well:

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