Monday, January 02, 2006

Davar Acher

I heard an interesting dvar torah this past Shabbat on the prehistory of Chanukkah. The speaker focused on the following Talmudic passage, which explains the origin of the Roman winter solstice festivals, Kalenda and Saturnalia:
ת"ר לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח' ימים בתענית [ובתפלה] כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים הוא קבעם לשם שמים והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים

The Rabbis taught: when Adam saw that the days were growing shorter, he said, "Oy! Perhaps because I sinned, the world is becoming dark on my account and returning to chaos, and this is the death that was decreed for me by heaven [Gen. 2:17]." He fasted for eight days. When the solstice arrived and he saw that the days were growing longer, he said, "It is simply the way of the world." He went and established eight days of festivity. The following year, he observed both [the eight days preceding the solstace and the eight days following the solstace] as days of festivity. He [Adam] established them for the sake of heaven, but they [the Romans] established them for the sake of pagan worship (B. Avodah Zarah 8a).
The speaker added a twist to the plain meaning of the text: They (the Romans) celebrate an eight-day solstice festival for their own reasons, but we (the Jews) have adopted the practice as a celebration of the Hasmonean victory.

Because Jewish holidays are fixed to a lunar calendar adjusted to the solar calendar, Chanukkah always falls around the winter solstace in the northern hemisphere, but it does not always accord with it precisely. Nonetheless, the parallels between Chanukkah and Saturnalia (later celebrated as Christmas and New Year's Day) are clear. Both begin on the twenty-fifth of a mid-winter month and last eight days. The practice of lighting an increasing number of candles on each successive night also has obvious resonance as a solstice ritual.

Could Chanukkah be based on a pre-Roman version of Saturnalia? A Google search indicates that the aforementioned Shabbat speaker was hardly the first to suggest a historical connection between the two. If this is the case, then by calling the holiday the "festival of Sukkot in Kislev" (2 Maccabees 1:9), the Jews of the second temple period were linking a pagan holiday to their own tradition, making it an appropriate context for celebrating the cleansing of the second temple.


elf said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mar Gavriel said...

Two posts in two days?!


The actors are come hither, my lord.


Buzz, buzz!

Q said...

It is commonly believed that Christmas was timed to coincide with Saturnalia, but it may not be so.

elf said...

Very interesting article. Does anyone know more about this?

elf said...

How were these dates affected by the dispute over the Gregorian calendar?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I love that midrash, and wrote about it here.

elf said...

A thought-provoking post, Steg. I suspect that the contrast between the "Shem" and "Yefet" perspectives is not as stark as you, or at least R. Berger, are/is making it out to be. It would certainly be a mistake to equate all things "Western" with Greek philosophy. As for Christianity, many Christians have no trouble accepting the notion that Christmas was once a solstice festival. Eilu v'eilu, as we would say.

Mar Gavriel said...

Or eillu vo'eillo, with qometz under the vov, as per GKC 104g. Right?

elf said...

Yes, yes, Mr. Diqduq Geek ;-)

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