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Hanukkah: a dialogue between history and nature

Eighth day of Hanukkah menorah (Flickr photo - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

A book by Yoel Bin-Nun, Zakhor VeShamor: The Meaning of Nature and History in the Sabbath and the Festival Calendar (published only in Hebrew), reveals some new information about Hanukkah.

Hanukkah, unlike the pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, is not usually perceived as a holiday with significance in the two realms of nature and history. Pesach is both a holiday of national liberation and a celebration of spring. Shavuot celebrates the first harvest of the agricultural season in Israel and, according to our talmudic sages, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the middle historical point of creation, revelation and ultimate redemption. Sukkot celebrates the last harvests of grapes and grain, but also reminds us of the sukkot we dwelt in during our desert trek to Israel.

Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabean revolt of 167-160 BCE against both the Greek-Syrians and Hellenized Jews, resulting in the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Hasmonean Dynasty.  On first glance, this is strictly a historical event, which might be seen as a Divine miracle by observant Jews, but which was executed by humans in the line of history.  On the face of it, there is no nature theme in Hanukkah.

And yet, in his book, Bin-Nun finds a series of Hanukkah connections to the cycle of nature in the Land of Israel specifically, but also generally in the northern hemisphere.

In Christian-dominant countries, Jews have often been asked if Hanukkah has any connection to Christmas, both occurring at roughly the same time of the solar year, even though Hanukkah is based on a lunar date. Mostly there is no connection, even though both holidays have been grossly commercialized into lavish gift markets in both cultures, with tree and lawn decorations in one tradition and latkes and sufganiyot in the other.

But they both occur on the 25th of a northern hemisphere winter month; December in the solar calendar and Kislev in our lunar calendar. In 2019, they coincide with the third day of Hanukkah – Kislev 27, falling on Dec. 25. In the northern hemisphere, where both North America and Israel lie, this is the darkest week of the year. The winter solstice has occurred with its longest night and the moon is close to invisible near the end of its waning cycle. And lo and behold, both holidays celebrate light over darkness.

Christians have the star of Bethlehem, as mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, and we Jews have an eight-day celebration of lighting oil or candles for pirsumei nisa, to publicize the miracle of the Hanukkah story. First-century Roman-Jewish historian Josephus even called Hanukkah hag ha-urim, the Festival of Lights.

Bin-Nun traces the rabbinic legends of Adam’s dealing with the shortening days of the year from Tishrei until Kislev and then the lengthening of the light hours after Kislev, corresponding to the solar period from the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice and beyond to the vernal equinox.

He sees this as a pre-Jewish, and even pre-pagan, form of Hanukkah –  at the very dawn of human history. He then notes the development of pagan light festivals at the same time of year. Then comes Hanukkah as our light festival, followed by Christmas, the Christian holiday of light over darkness just after the winter solstice of Dec. 21. This theme of light over darkness gives Hanukkah its place in the domain of nature, in conjunction with its historical significance, which is also a revolution of light over the darkness of Greek-Syrian spiritual persecution.

However, Bin-Nun has much more to offer in his argument that Hanukkah is as binary in its celebration as the pilgrimage festivals. Why is a non-biblical holiday celebrated for eight days with a full recitation of Hallel each day? Purim is also a non-Torah festival, but at least its story is part of the Bible, while Hanukkah’s tale is apocryphal. And Purim is celebrated for only one day and without any Hallel!  The reply has to do with Sukkot.

One traditional explanation is that with the Temple under foreign and pagan control, the Sukkot festival could not be celebrated with its proper sacrificial rites and that immediately after the Temple’s re-dedication, the first Hanukkah (dedication) was, in fact, a belated celebration of the eight days of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.

While that explains the first Hanukkah, with its oil miracles, it might not explain the Hanukkah of generations, our celebration over the last 2,000 years.  Our lasting celebration is also related to Sukkot, the harvest festival. As it happens, Kislev is the month in which the olive harvest ends in Israel, and as that harvest occurs each year, the holiday continued to be celebrated with harvest as its theme; another harvest festival of eight days celebrating olive oil in Kislev similar to the harvest of grapes and grain in Tishrei. Hence, the miracle legend, our lights going as Hillel had it, from one to eight, latkes and sufganiyot (oil-drenched as they are).

Hanukkah’s lights symbolize the ability of humans to overpower nature’s darkness with light. Note, however, that the light, while kindled by people as an act of human history, comes from oil or wax, a product of nature. The dialectic continues.

The famous talmudic argument between Shammai (go from eight lights down to one) and Hillel (the opposite order) existed because Shammai wished to dwell on the heavenly light of nature, which slowly darkens, while Hillel wished to stress the human light of history, which increases and thereby overpowers nature’s darkness (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b).

Bin-Nun draws a parallelism between the actual history of the Second Temple and the development of Hanukkah.  While the Temple is rebuilt for the sake of heaven, it is later desecrated by pagans, and then restored and re-sanctified by the Hasmoneans. In parallel, the light festival is at first cosmic in the Adam legends, then paganized and later re-engineered by the Hasmoneans and Jewish tradition into a genuine festival for the sake of heaven.

Hanukkah, then, has much in common with Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot in that both history and nature are celebrated equally on all of these special days. More importantly, the ongoing dialectic between history and nature is evident in the details of festival celebration.  It’s not just that each realm is represented, it is their interaction with each other that fascinates. Enjoy Hanukkah, the celebration of both re-dedication and olive oil!