Jewish Heritage Online Magazine


A legend

When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, "Woe is me! Perhaps because I acted offensively, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death Heaven has decreed for me." He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, "Such is the way of the world" and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity.

Hanukkah and the winter solstice

There is a great deal of evidence that in much of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, the winter solstice was a time for imploring the sunlight to return and for celebrating its readiness to do so. The Romans celebrated the 25th of December as the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun, while the Persians lit great bonfires and sent out birds bearing torches of dried grass, at the time of the winter solstice.

It has been surmised that Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks may have consciously chosen the 25th of Kislev (in 169 BCE) — the time of the winter solstice — to commence their idolatrous worship in the Temple, as it coincided with a pagan solstice festival. According to this line of thinking, the Maccabees, by adopting the 25th of Kislev as the day of rededication (in 166 BCE), were claiming victory over a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews. They were rededicating not only the Temple, but the day itself, to Jewish holiness. The lighting of candles, then, was perhaps a readaption of pagan custom in a Jewish context.

From Arthur Waskow, Seasons of our Joy: A Celebration of Modern Jewish Renewal (Bantam Books, 1982). Reprinted by permission of the author.

Legend: Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zorah 8a; English translation: The Book of Legends (Schocken Books, 1992). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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