The Natural and Spiritual Light: The Duality of Hanukkah

By: Mindy Schwartz

Idolatry, the single greatest temptation of the ancient Jew, holds the attention of the biblical narrative with a choking grip until the destruction of the first Temple. Rambam explains this obsession as a gradual evolution.[i] When man first bowed to the luminary bodies he did so as an expression of service to God, whom he knew to be the creator of those physical objects. But as time went on, man began to forget that a Creator stood behind the sun and moon, and that to bow to them was to kneel before a Master of a much greater scale. Thus man bowed to the luminaries as his ancestors did before him, and mistook this action as a sign that the luminaries themselves were masters worthy of worship. The slippery slope Rambam sketches helps one understand Judaism’s hesitation when it comes to celebrations of nature. However, the Bible does give us a model for these types of celebrations, in the three major festivals that require pilgrimage to the Temple Mount. Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot all take place during a key point in the harvest cycle as outlined in Sefer Shemot.[ii] Yet in Sefer Vayikra, the Bible also takes care to focus these natural celebrations through the lens of key events in the religious history of the Jewish people.[iii] To those not dependent on an agricultural economy, the importance of the harvest cycle pales when placed beside the glorious miracles of the religious-historical narrative. But, for much of Jewish history, the harvest served as critical feature of daily life, an event of a very different but still almost equal level of importance as the ten plagues, the giving of the Torah, or the booths built in the desert. By instilling the everyday physical reality within the celebration of the sublime, laypeople could connect to these holidays on a personal level. Still, as Rambam points out, the natural and religious-historical perspectives are a delicate pair, one that future generations might have felt wary to replicate. However, the Rabbis recognized the depth that the two outlooks can provide one another, and took pains to emulate this duality when they established the celebration of Hanukkah.[iv]

The Talmud Bavli in tractate Avodah Zarah relays a fascinating vignette in the life of Adam, the first man.[v] Adam noticed that days were getting shorter. Dismayed, he began an eight-day fast, sure that the dearth in sunlight was a sign of his impending death sentence from Heaven. Three days after the winter solstice he noticed the day was getting longer, and realized that, rather than observing his own consignment to chaos, he was simply noticing “the course of the world.”[vi] He celebrated this realization with an eight-day festival. The rabbis use this story to explain the ancient pagan holidays of Saturnalia and Kalenda, observed eight days preceding and following the winter solstice respectively. Adam established these holidays “for the sake of Heaven,” while the heathens repurposed them as worship of the luminaires themselves.[vii]  The Rabbis do not specify when Adam’s holidays were corrupted; their main goal was to explain these holidays to Jews who witnessed their observance while living in the Roman Empire. This origin story, focused on the holy intentions of the first man, asks these Jews to reexamine Saturnalia and Kalenda, and, perhaps, with this new nuanced understanding, appreciate them for their holy beginnings and mourn them for their current corruption. These two festivals have been recorded in ancient Roman calendars and are known to have included lighting ceremonies and candles as ritual gifts.[viii] The devolution of Adam’s original festivals clearly demonstrates the danger of man celebrating natural elements in praise of God. The Sages might have been tempted to bury these festivals since they signify the slippery slope to which appreciation of nature can lead. Yet it is clear they did not step away from the challenge presented here, choosing to deal in nuance rather than imprecise generalizations.

Using the framework set out by three pilgrimage festivals mentioned in the Bible, the Rabbis attached a religious-historical significance to Kalenda and Saturnalia in order to safely secure God in the natural celebration. The sages determined that the date of Hanukkah, the 25th of Kislev, would serve also as the outlet for the natural celebration of the solstice, as the two calendar dates were so close to one and other. The religious-historical aspect of this holiday, the celebration of the resilient and independent Jewish spirit through the Hasmonean defeat over the oppressive Greek rule, has held such a firm grip on the nation’s imagination that the natural celebration with which it was paired has fallen into the background. However unrecognized it is in its own right, the celebration of the light and the winter solstice adds much depth to the themes and character of Hanukkah.

 References to Hanukkah are scarce in Tannaitic and Amoraic literature; it is one of the only major holidays that does not have its own tractate of Mishnah devoted to its observance. One of the few references to Hanukkah can be found in Megillat Ta’anit, the earliest known Tannaitic document. Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau explains Megillat Ta’anit as a written record of festive days, established primarily during the Hasmonean dynasty, on which fasting was prohibited. Through these days we see the glorious achievements of the Hasmoneans, yet only the 25th of Kislev, the dedication of temple, known as Hanukkah, has survived.[ix] By placing this religious-historical victory together with the natural phenomenon of the solstice, the Rabbis gave Hanukkah the boost it needed to become a major Jewish holiday that survived through the generations. Similar to the three major pilgrimage holidays, which strike a chord with lay people because of their relation to crucial events in everyday life, Hanukkah’s association with a celebration of natural light has given it renewed power for generations after the religious-historical event occurred. While Hanukkah represents the shift from dark to light, the holiday itself takes place on the darkest days of the year. The winter solstice always falls out in late Kislev or early Tevet, meaning that at this time the daylight hours are at their shortest and because of the phases of the moon the last week in the month barely has moonlight at night. The religious-historical lights of Hanukkah give hope to the Jewish people during these depressing nights of deep darkness, assuaging the same fears and melancholy felt by Adam when he first witnessed this natural phenomenon.[x]

The connection of the religious-historical to the natural deepens the significance of both celebrations. Thematically, the two go hand in hand­­—the shift from shorter to longer days symbolizes the fight between the Maccabees and the Greeks. As light overcomes darkness, the dedicated and courageous Maccabees overcome the evil and pagan Greeks. Despite all the miracles and military victories that occurred during the Hanukkah story, the rededication of the Temple itself serves the force behind the historical component of the holiday because of its eternal religious significance. The main service of Hanukkah, lighting the hanukiyah, reflects the central role of the rededication in the holiday. But the candle lighting cannot be divorced from the natural celebration of God’s celestial beings. Both forms of celebration, that of the natural and that of the religious-historical combine during the climax of the holiday—­the moment the candles are lit and we celebrate both physical and spiritual lights of God.

The Saturnalia and Kalenda festivals celebrated by the Romans have long ago fallen into the realm of historical relics. Similar to the way the harvest cycle aspect of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot has lost its meaning to the majority of Jews who are no longer involved in agricultural business, the significance of the luminary festivals of Saturnalia and Kalenda has faded. Until the invention of artificial light, man maintained a deep veneration for the luminary bodies. But today, when the daylight hours can be effortlessly extended long after the sun has set with simple flick of a switch, modern man might find it difficult to understand the need for eight day festivals dedicated to the celebration of the sun and moon, and the interactions between the day and night. Hanukkah provides the Jewish people with a lasting celebration of this natural occurrence, and of God who stands behind it.  Even now that man’s appreciation of the sublime “course of the world,” as the Talmud put it,[xi] has fallen out of fashion, the themes of the natural celebration live on in the Festival of Lights.[xii] On each night of Hanukkah, the flames of the hanukiyot glow in the windows of Jewish homes and light up the dark nights. They commemorate religious-historical narrative—the righteous Maccabees who defeat the evil Greeks and the lights of the Menorah that spread hope to the once oppressed Jewish people. But they also mirror a more ancient celebration of nature—the triumph of sunlight over darkness that was first noticed and exalted by Adam, the first man. 

Mindy Schwartz is a sophomore at Stern College.


[i] Rambam, Hilchot Avodah Zarah, 1:1-2

[ii] Shemot: 23:14-17

[iii] Vayikra: 23:4-36

[iv] I thank my teacher Rav Tani Freintuch for introducing me to this theory. 

[v] Avodah Zarah 8a

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] “Saturnalia,” available at: Penelope.UChicago.edu

[ix] Binyamin Lau. The Sages: Character, Context and Creativity, transl. by Michael Prawer. Vol. I. (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2010), 255-261.

[x] Menachem Leibtag, “Hanukkah- Its Biblical Roots Part Two,” The Tanach Study Center. available at: tanach.org

[xi] Avodah Zarah 8a

[xii] Ibid.

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