By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
Last week we discussed Chanukah and 25 Kislev. We demonstrated how the Greeks defiled the Sanctuary on 25 Kislev and in Chaggai’s time the Temple was rededicated on 25 Kislev. Today we will look at a Midrash that discusses Chanukah — even if Chanukah and 25 Kislev aren’t mentioned explicitly.
Chanukah falls out during a season of short days and long nights, when both the moon and sun show themselves least. Chanukah occurs at the end of the month, when the light of the moon diminishes until it disappears completely. Chanukah always falls out around the winter solstice; December 21 is the date of the longest night of the year. This absence of natural light requires an increase of human illumination to dispel the darkness. It is possible that this is the source of the Gemara below, that even the pagans celebrated this natural-cosmic holiday of light and fire:
Holiday of Light in the Time of Adam
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 8a) describes the first holiday of light and the pagan holidays linked to it:
“Rav Chanan bar Rava says: Kalenda is celebrated eight days after the [winter] solstice; Saturnalia during the eight days before the winter solstice. The Sages taught: When Adam the first man saw that the day was progressively diminishing, he said: Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will return to chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven. He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer.
“Once he saw that in the season of Tevet the day was progressively lengthening [after the solstice], he said: this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. The next year, he made both these [eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year] and these days of festivities. He [Adam] instituted [these festivals] for the sake of Heaven, but they [the gentiles of later generations] instituted them for the sake of idol worship.”
“Kalenda” is related to the word “calendar,” while “Saturnalia” in the Aramaic is סטרנורא, a combination or satur — star or planet, and nura, fire; the pagans celebrated the holiday of the star of fire. The Gemara is aware of the commonality between the Jewish and pagan holidays, but its explanation is the opposite of what is generally supposed by scholars of religion. Here, it was not a monotheistic holiday that developed from a pagan festival, but the opposite: a holiday first celebrated by Adam HaRishon, who instituted it “for the sake of Heaven,” which later evolved into a pagan festival.
When Adam discovers that the progressively diminishing days are simply the course of nature, he establishes a festival of thanksgiving to G-d. What did he celebrate? He wasn’t actually saved by a miracle. Rather, Adam was simply grateful for the law and order in nature — a manifestation of the fact that G-d runs the world — rather than nature being a product of haphazard randomness.
Parallels Between Adam and Chanukah
The Gemara above parallels the following Gemara (Shabbat 21b):
“What is Chanukah? The Sages taught: On the 25th of Kislev, the days of Chanukah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest. And there was [sufficient oil] there to light [the menorah for] only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit from it eight days. The next year [the Sages] instituted those days and made them holidays with Hallel and thanksgiving.
Here we see a distinct linguistic parallel (easier to see in the Aramaic). With regard to Adam, the Gemara states (Avodah Zarah 8a.):
ועשה שמונה ימים טובים … לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים, הוא קבעם לשם שמים
“He went and observed a festival for eight days … The next year, he made both these and these days of festivities. He [Adam] instituted [these festivals] for the sake of Heaven.”
In the context of Chanukah, similar terminology is used (Shabbat 21b):
והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים. לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
“… they lit from it eight days. The next year, the Sages instituted those days and made them days of festivities with Hallel and thanksgiving.”
The Gemara connects these two incidents when defining Chanukah, showing that it is a natural festival with roots in an ancient holiday from the beginning of time. Afterwards, Judaism poured in the content of inauguration and dedication—in Moshe’s time with the Mishkan, during Chaggai’s time, and, finally in the time of the Greeks and Hasmoneans. However, its source is with Adam!
Christianity, whose holidays were borrowed from pagan festivals and influenced by Chanukah as well, observe their holiday on the 25th of the month (albeit of the solar rather than lunar month).
The Beit HaMikdash, built as a sanctuary for G-d, was defiled by pagans, only to be purified once again by the Hasmoneans. So, too, the ancient Chanukah was originally a festival instituted for G-d’s sake, defiled (turned Saturnalia), and then purified and rededicated to G-d by the Hasmoneans.
The Essence of Chanukah
Chanukah is meant to redeem the concept of light and fire. Chanukah symbolizes the power of human action, which G-d wants us to engage in. Even when the world is dark and cold, we humans are charged with warming and lighting it up. And even when we encounter injustice and immorality, we need to remember that “a bit of light dispels much darkness.” The actions of one person can make a difference and illuminate the world. Even a small cruse of oil — even just one candle — can change the whole world.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email email@example.com or call 972-8-684-7325.