Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hanukkah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Hanukkah, see the archives to my blog, at December 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

We note with sadness the death of the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Horowitz ztz”l, on Motza’ei Shabbat Vayishlah (December 5th). A memorial essay will follow shortly.

“What is Hanukkah?”

Near the beginning of the Talmudic discussion about Hanukkah (which, unlike almost all the other holidays, does not have its own tractate, but appears in the second chapter of Shabbat, by way of association with the Shabbat candles), the question is asked: מאי חנוכה, “What is Hanukkah?”—a question that the Talmud does not ask about any other holiday. Let us examine this passage, at Shabbat 21b:

What is Hanukkah? As our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev are the days of Hanukkah, eight [days] during which it is forbidden to lament the dead or to fast. For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they contaminated all the oils which were therein, and when the kingdom of the Hasmonean house strengthened and defeated them, they searched and found only a single vial of oil which had been left with the seal of the High Priest [that had not been contaminated], and there was only enough there to light for one day. And a miracle was done, and they lit therefrom for eight days. The following year, they fixed these as [eight] festive days, with praise and thanksgiving.

This Talmudic passage is a more-or-less direct quotation from Megillat Ta’anit, an ancient document, considered by some to be the earliest extant work of Oral Torah, which lists a variety of days throughout the course months of the Hebrew year, all told some forty in number, that were marked by a certain degree of joy and festivity and on which it was forbidden to engage in weeping or fasting. Of the occasions listed there, only Hanukkah and Purim are observed today. (Note: the brackets in the above text indicate those phrases that appear in Megillat Ta’anit but not in the Talmudic passage.) The Talmudic sugya quotes the opening part of the scholium, the explanation of why Hanukkah is celebrated as such. Further on, Megillat Ta’anit addresses the question as to why Hanukkah is observed for eight days rather than seven, as the other times the Temple was dedicated the festivities lasted for seven days; it goes on to describe the makeshift Menorah, made of pipes of iron overlaid with lead, used in place of the golden Menorah; and concludes with some of the laws of Hanukkah.

What is missing here? Both the passage from the Babylonian Talmud and that from Megillat Ta’anit ignore almost completely the war of the Hasmoneans, described at length in the Apocrypal Books of Maccabees and in Josephus, which was intended to restore Jewish sovereignty and thereby enable the Jews to once again live their lives according to their ancient traditions. The Seleucid-Hellenistic rule of the late third and early second century BCE was one of severe religious repression, during which, at least according to many sources, the Jews were not allowed to practice circumcision, to observe the Shabbat, or to fix their calendar and thus the various festival days through their High Court. Shaking off the Hellenistic rule and the restoration of religious freedom thus seemed to go hand-in-hand.

Interestingly, Rambam, in his presentation of the laws of Hanukkah, like this Talmudic passage, begins with a lengthy discussion of the historical background of this occasion, rather than going directly to the pertinent laws and mitzvot as he does in the case of those festivals prescribed by the Torah. But his emphases are quite different from those of the gemara. Thus, in Chapter 3 of Hilkhot Megillah ve-Hanukkah, we read:

1. During the Second Temple, when the Grecian kings issued edicts against Israel and abolished their law and did not allow them to engage in Torah and mitzvot, and tried to take their money and their daughters, and they entered the Sanctuary and made breaches therein and contaminated the pure things. And Israel were greatly oppressed because of this, until the God of their Fathers took pity upon them and delivered them from their hand and saved them. And the Hasmonean high priests overcame them and killed them, and saved Israel from their hand, and crowned a king from among the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than two hundred years until the destruction of the Second Temple.

He continues, in the next two halakhot, to describe the miracle of the oil and the institution of Hanukkah. (I have translated and discussed this passage in the past, interested readers are referred to HY V: Miketz-Hanukkah [=Rambam; see my blog archives, December 2005.)

Strikingly unlike the Talmudic sugya, Maimonides here discusses what might be called the political-cultural-national aspect of Hanukkah: what may have started as a pietistic reaction to religious persecution and suppression prompted a rebellion, which resulted in the attainment of political sovereignty. As time went on (this point Rambam does not mention), the Hasmonean line, of priestly descent, assumed royal prerogatives as well, thereby violating the traditional separation of sacred and secular leadership that had been observed since time immemorial, and eventually succumbed to the allures of wealth and power, turning corrupt and aloof from the ordinary people.

Some have suggested that the posing of the question, ”Why Hanukkah?” refers to a quandary felt by the Sages of the Talmud. As they could no longer be particularly excited by the Hasmonean victory, both because they ultimate departed from the religious ideals that originally motivated them, and because in any event the state they created was now defunct, they wondered why one ought bother to celebrate it at all. The Bavli’s answer was a narrow one, focused on the supernatural intervention expressed in the miracle of the oil. Rambam, by contrast, sees matters on a broader canvas, focusing at least as much on the political victory, as a means of attaining religious-cultural-spiritual freedom from the Grecian oppression. A similar spirit to that of the Rambam is expressed by the Al ha-Nisim prayer, inserted in the Amidah and in the Grace After Meals throughout the eight days of Hanukkah.

Modern Jewish historiography, particularly that influenced by Zionism, has tended to emphasize the nationalistic aspects of Hanukkah. In secular Israeli culture, Hanukkah is often identified as a victory of the striving for national independence and autonomy, coupled with the military heroism and bravery of the Maccabees. The Israeli state, as it were, wishes to see itself in the image of the Hasmoneans. By contrast, the more religious elements within Jewry tend to emphasize the theological, religious aspects of Hanukkah—hence, the emphasis on the miracle of the vial of oil and the devotion of the Hasmoneans to the restoration of the Temple service with, above all else, its requirements of ritual purity. All this is symbolized by the candles, which represent the light of Torah.

But there is yet another way of viewing this holiday. Prof. Israel Jacob Yuval of the Hebrew University, in a recent lecture, has suggested a third motif—if you will, “a third verse that mediates [between two contradictory ones]”—that transcends the dichotomy between the theological-spiritual interpretation and the national-political one. To understand his approach, we must read the following aggadah related to the ancient pagan mid-winter festivals, at Avodah Zarah 8a:

Mishnah: These are the festival days of the idolaters: Kalends and Saturnalia… Gemara: Rav Hanan son of Rava said: Kalends is eight days after the [winter] solstice; Saturnalia, eight days before the solstice. The sign of this is “behind and afore You have created me” [Psalm 139:5].

Our Rabbis taught: Because Adam saw that the days were becoming progressively shorter, he said: “Woe is me, perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark and returning to chaos, and this is the death which has been decreed upon me from Heaven.” So he sat for eight days, fasting and praying. Once he saw the solstice of Teveth [i.e., the winter solstice] and that the days were beginning to become longer, he said: Such is the way the world. So he went and made eight festive days. The following year, he made both of them festive days.

He [Adam] fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but they [the idolaters] fixed them for idolatrous worship.

Our aggadah describes a universal human experience: the sense of dread elicited by darkness. There is something existentially frightening, terrifying, evocative of the most primal fears, about the absence of light. No wonder, then, that in virtually every human culture, darkness and the color black are seen as symbols of evil, of death, of return to chaos. Night is a time filled with uncanny, hostile spirits; witches, succubii, and demons; the wee hours of the night are the preferred time for the cult of Satan. Even in the most “enlightened,” secular, atheistic cultures, such as those of Scandinavia, the long, dark, winter months are a time when many turn to drink and depression, and even suicide. At its root, darkness is reminiscent of the grave.

What has all this to do with Hanukkah? Prof. Yuval notes that the Roman pagan culture commemorated mid-winter’s day (which they believed to fall on December 25th, not on the 21st as held by modern calculations of the solstice) with the two above-mentioned festivals. The shortest day of the year is a turning point in the natural cycle: in the midst of a period of prolonged darkness, the days gradually, at first almost imperceptibly, begin to become longer and longer. In the pagan world, this festival was dedicated to the sun god; however, there is much evidence to suggest that both Judaism and Christianity adapted this holiday for their own purposes, in the form of the days of Hanukkah and the Feast of the Nativity, respectively. {There is no evidence in the Christian Scriptures to suggest that Jesus was in fact born on December 25th, or anytime around midwinter (the Greek Orthodox and other Eastern Churches celebrate Christmas in early January). Only two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, mention Jesus’ birth at all, and neither gives any indication of its date or even season. However, it is highly improbable that the “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” of Luke 2:8 did so in the depths of winter; even with the Mediterranean climate of Eretz Yisrael, it is quite cold on winter nights, especially in the central hill country where Bethlehem is located.)

The final sentence of the above aggadah has it that “Adam fixed them [as festival days] for the sake of Heaven, but the pagans did so for the sake of their idolatry.” To translate this into conceptual language: mid-winter’s day as an occasion for celebration is not incompatible with monotheism. We are grateful to the one God for ordering the universe in such a way that there are times of winter, cold and darkness, but also summer, filled with light and warmth; the first signs of the turning-point in mid- winter is a reminder of this. The return of light is a natural symbol for the return of joy, of vitality, of life itself. A reminder that, within the earth itself, even if at times it is frozen over, new life is germinating, providing grain and fruit for the new spring’s and summer’s harvest.

Beyond that: the contrast between light and darkness may easily be seen as symbolic of that between good and evil, between life and death, between knowledge and ignorance; these symbols are ones of universal significance. Thus Judaism reinterpreted the traditional mid-winter festival, appropriating it for its own purposes, inter alia to commemorate an event that in any event had occurred around that time of year. The emergence of Christmas as a major festival of the new religion of the Roman empire in the third century may have served as a stimulus for Judaism to reemphasize its own midwinter festival, rather than discarding it along with all those other days recorded in Megillat Ta’anit, stressing particularly those contents related to light: the miracle of the oil in the Sanctuary, the lighting of candles at home and, more generally and metaphorically, the spread of the light of Torah, as exemplified by the religious devotion of the Hasmoneans (some thinkers speak of Hanukkah, not inappropriately, as the “Festival of Oral Torah”), and perhaps also the national urge for autonomy and self-determination as a form of light.

Yuval concluded his talk by seeing Hanukkah, rather than as a festival celebrating separation, as is the usual interpretation, but as one of synthesis, adapting universal contents to our own cultural and religious system. To those of us who seek a more nuanced approach to the age-old conflict between Jerusalem and Athens, beyond simple rejection of Hellenism and all it symbolizes, this approach has much to recommend it (but is not to be confused with the superficial syncretism of “Chrismukkah,” in which both traditions are flattened out to little more than consumer labels).


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