Sunday, January 08, 2012

Hanukkah (Wanderings)

Is Hanukkah a Festival?

The other day I went to the local post office to pay a bill and send some letters. After I finished my business, the clerk, in keeping with the spirit of the recently privatized Israel postal service, tried to sell me something. “What are these?” I asked her. “Greeting cards.” “But Rosh Hashana was three months ago!” I answered. “Ah, these are for Hanukkah.” I told her that, as I see it, Hanukkah is not a holiday on which Jews customarily send greetings to all and sundry, and that this seemed to me a Gentile custom. “Oh no, these are for Hanukkah!”

This little incident set me thinking about the status of Hanukkah today, the great, possibly exaggerated importance it enjoys in many circles, and its “proper” status in Jewish thought and halakhah. Perhaps I suffer from the overly strict halakhic education I received from my teacher, Rav Soloveitchik—strict in the intellectual, not necessarily in that of humrot in praxis; he always focused on the importance of clear and exact categories and definitions—hence his love of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. In any event, it suddenly occurred to me that the greetings commonly used here in Israel—Hanakkah sameah; Hag Hanukkah sameah, or even Hag Urim sameah—have always grated on my ears. Is Hanukkah in fact a hag, a festival in the religious sense? (Old time Hasidic Jews greet one another with the words, A Likhtig’n Hanukkah—”a light-filled Hanukkah”—and the sources often speak of yemei Hanukkah, “the days of Hanukkah.”) Is there any component of joy in the traditional understanding of these eight days? IOs there, for example, a religious obligation to eat a festive meal on Hanukkah? And what about the phrase Hag Urim or “Festival of Lights”? Is it an indigenous Jewish expression, or is it a modern invention of some sort—and if so, by whom?

At this point, I can imagine some readers shrugging their shoulders and applying to Hanukkah something like the old Yiddish saying: “Purim ist nisht a yontiff, unt Kholera ist nisht a krank”—that is, “Purim is not a festival day, and cholera isn’t a disease.” As if to say: don’t be such a pedant: Hanukkah is what it is and it has a life of its own in the Jewish folk understanding. It is an important part of what Mordecai Kaplan called the sancta of the Jewish people. If Jews treat it as a major holiday, then that’s what it is. But bear with me: there is a serious point to all these questions—namely, has Hanukkah become a rather bombastic group of days? And if so, why?

To begin with the mitzvah of joy or the absence thereof on Hanukkah: in the classical Talmudic source for Hanukkah, b. Shabbat 21b, in response to the question, “What is Hanukkah?,” the text briefly recounts the miracle of the cruse of oil, concluding, “And [these eight days]… were fixed as goodly days [yamim tovim], with praise and thanksgiving—Hallel ve-hoda’ah—and lighting candles.” Hallel refers to the recitation of the complete Hallel during the Morning Service on each day of Hanukkah; hoda’ah to thanking God for the specific events commemorated by these days by means of the adding the section beginning with the words Al ha-Nissim, which relates the salient points of the Hanukkah story in capsule form, in the Amidah prayer and Grace after Meals throughout the eight days. There is no mention here of “joy,” a characteristic of the three pilgrimage festival of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot; there is no mention of a festive meal, which is a sine qua non of festivity in Jewish tradition (but see Orah Hayyim 670.2, in the gloss of the Rem”a, that it is “a bit of a mitzvah” to do so); no Kiddush; nor is there any mention of a prohibition of labor. On the other hand, Rambam, who in his Code devotes two halakhot to a summary of the rationale for the days, describes the eight days of Hanukkah as “days of praise and joy (Hallel ve-simhah) and lighting therein candles” (Hilkhot Hanukkah 3.3).

What kind of joy is he speaking about? Hanukkah is the last remaining remnant of a whole category of minor festive days commemorating various events that occurred during Second Temple times, listed and described in an ancient tannaitic text known as Megillat Ta’anit. The common denominator of these days is “joy” in the negative sense—that is, the prohibition of certain manifestations of sadness, such as fasting and/or eulogizing the dead. It is thus a very moderate, low-key kind of joy.

As for the term “Festival of Lights”: at first glance, it seemed to me that this was one of those term (like “Seasons Greetings”) invented in the United States during a period when many American Jews sought to smooth over the differences between their own traditions and those of the majority culture—what has sometimes been termed “the December Dilemma”—and to give their own holiday a more “universal,“ acceptable ring. Perhaps the “lights” mentioned can be seen as alluding both to the Hanukkah candles and to the “Christmas lights” used to decorate the Christmas tree and Christian homes during the Yuletide season). The noted historian of American Jewry, Jonathan Sarna, in response to my query, wrote that “My sense is that ‘Festival of Lights’ goes back to the time when Jews eschewed Hebrew names for their holidays and tried to find English language equivalents for everything (for a time, Pesach was Jewish Easter), in a bid to make Judaism more intelligible to their neighbors. If you refer to [the Jewish News archives at] and search for ‘Festival of Lights,’ you will see that the term was used as early as the 1920s.” Following his suggestion, using this fine resource whose very existence I had not known until now, I found an item from August 23 1927 describing a newly-published booklet by the Reform movement’s Union of Hebrew Congregations containing 13 sermons for the various holidays, including one for what is referred to as “the Festival of Lights.”

But then he added, quoting his colleague Dianne Ashton, that the term was already used by Josephus in Antiquities, Book XII. However, the fact that the term is not found anywhere in classical Rabbinic literature nor, to the best of my knowledge, in medieval Jewish sources, would suggest that its contemporary usage is a direct revival of an ancient but long forgotten term, motivated by the assimilatory or universalistic tendencies mentioned earlier.

My wife reminded me of yet another aspect of Hanukkah: that both Hanukkah and Christmas occur in the dead of winter, at a time when days are short and the sun is rather low in the sky. Thus, some historians of religion have suggested that both holidays bear some connection to an earlier pagan midwinter festival marking the turning point of the year, a kind of celebration of death and rebirth. (Israel Yuval has spoken about this, in an as-yet unpublished paper; see below.)

Yet another theory is suggested by one Al Wolters in an article reprinted in N. Zion and B. Spectre’s A Different Light (pp. 247-248): astronomers have calculated that Halley’s comet made one of its once-every-74-year appearances in the sky during the autumn and winter of 164 BCE—i.e., at the time of the Hanukkah story. Moreover, at that time (unlike 1985) it passed particularly close to the earth and was thus unusually bright. This brilliant light, visible in the daytime sky, was seen as a portent of the great events that ensued; hence the name, “Festival of Lights.” (On all this and more, see HY IX: Hanukkah [=Aggadah]; or see my blog archives at 2009_11_18).

To return to our central point: there’s nothing wrong per se in greeting one’s friends and neighbors with the words Hanukkah Sameah or in eating latkes and/or sufganiot (after all, Jews like to eat!); the important point is how we think about it. Hanukkah, traditionally, celebrates the survival of Judaism, and of the Jewish people, in the face of tremendous opposition—the survival of a small, beleaguered group, through quiet, steadfast loyalty to its Torah and its way-of-life, like a tiny flame emanating from a small wick with a bit of oil. The problem is that in our day we no longer know how to celebrate in low key. Everything about Hanukkah has become, for different reasons, exaggerated, over-emphasized, even bombastic. The reasons are various: in America, as mentioned, the proximity to Christmas, and the desire to “compensate” Jewish children for not having Christmas, has led many to make Hanukkah into a kind of Jewish counterpart to Christmas, with a focus on gift-giving. In recent years, someone even coined the term “Chrismukkah”—a hybrid of the two, tailor-made for the intermarried. In Israel, the Hasmonean rebellion against the Seleucid overlords has been interpreted as the first war of Jewish national independence, foreshadowing the Zionist renascence and the State of Israel’s military victories; the Maccabees are seen as a heroic alternative to the “nebbishy” image of the Galut Jew, and the “Lights” include torches as well as candles. Even Habad has gotten into the act, with huge menorahs and lighting ceremonies in public places. And in all these places, there are commercial interests, pushing the message of “Buy! Buy! Buy!” The original sense of Hanukkah, as I see it, is that of the small light burning through the darkness of winter, the darkness of Galut; it is precisely the smallness of the flame, so to speak, that is suggestive of its greatness. But, then, how can a subtle, inner quality like Wisdom compete with ever-expanding capitalist economies?

For more teachings on Hanukkah, see the archives to this blog at 2005_12_01, and at December 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.


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