The Winter Solstice: Chanukah And The Darkest Point Of Light
By Rabbi Nachman Levine
Everybody but the Maharal of Prague1 knows that the miracle of Chanukah has nothing to do with the winter solstice. Anthropologists perhaps will say that pagan celebration of the solstice is rooted in the elemental fear of the impending darkness, of a winter of the soul; the Gemara, Avodah Zarah 8a, (for reasons which shall become clear) makes the same connection between that fear and the solstice. Scientists measure cycles of depression and sadness in reference to light deprivation and the solstice; biologists measure the effects of melatonin cycles in relation to the nadir of light at that time. But we generally hesitate to associate Chanukah with the context of its season and its physical reality.
And then there is the Maharal. The Maharal understands Chanukah and its meaning, precisely, in relation to its date, at the darkest point of the year. The implications of that interpretation would make Chanukah the sum of all these considerations, and more.
The midrash2 says essentially this: the Mishkan was completed on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev3; (thus, Chanukah meals on this date are a mitzvah4). The Inauguration of the Mishkan (Chanukat HaBayit) could have been celebrated then on Kislev 25. Instead, the Holy One, Blessed Be He determined that it be in Nisan. He said to Kislev, “I must pay you back.” And it was so, in the days of Chanukah.5
What was the original idea? Certainly, it cannot imply a Divine change of plan. What does the midrash mean — that Kislev was owed, and how could it be repaid?
The Maharal decodes the terms of the midrash this way: One solar quarter, or three months, before Kislev 25 is Elul 25, the day God created the world, the day He created light. The light receded until the last day of the quarter, Kislev 25, the darkest point of the year. There was a possibility, a figure of thought, a consideration, though not actually conjectural or speculative, that the Mishkan should be inaugurated on this date, that Man should create light when God’s light had finished. At the darkest point, Man should respond to God’s creating the world, a home for Man, by creating the Mishkan, a home for God.
What does the midrashmean — that Kislev wasowed, and how could it be repaid?
The Maharal implies that although the Mishkan‘s inauguration was deferred to Nisan, the connection to Kislev 25, (Man creating light, responding creatively to God’s Creation), was a legitimate idea in itself. It would therefore have to be vindicated at some point (i.e. “I must pay you back.”) And in fact it was, in the time of Chanukah. And perhaps precisely because the idea had validity, Chanukah perforce would have to be a mitzvah d’rabbanan, a rabbinic mitzvah created by Man, and not by God, because the idea itself was that Man should respond and create on that day. And in fact, Chanukah was a mitzvah created historically at a time when there was no “light,” no Divine prophecy or inspiration. (The midrash calls the period of Greek dominion, “the time of darkness.”6) And Kislev was paid back.
An allusion to Chanukah is found in the twenty-fifth word in the Torah: “or,”– light (Genesis 1:3). This “or” was incontrovertibly the light God created in the Six Days of Creation. The Gemara (Pesachim 54b) says Man himself created fire, later, on Motzei Shabbat, only after Creation was completed. God gave Adam Divine knowledge (commemorated in the blessing in which we say Havdalah on Motzei Shabbat7: “Atah chonen l’adam daat — You give Man knowledge”) to produce fire which existed only in potential8 in Creation.
The creation of Adam’s light was grounded in darkness and fear. The midrash says that after the first sin9, Adam saw his first sunset; he was alarmed, afraid that the world was blacking out, running down, and that he had caused it to happen. The cosmic darkness, he thought, not only reflected his own inner darkness, but perhaps resulted from it. At sunrise, Adam realized it was the way of the world, and that he would have to cope with it and confront the darkness. After Shabbat, he took two stones and created fire, blessing God, “Blessed are You, who creates the lights of fire.” We say this blessing on Motzei Shabbat, at the time of the inception of fire10, when we light fire and begin our own creative acts. In this version, Adam created fire thirty-six hours after his own creation: after twelve hours of light on Erev Shabbat, twelve hours of dark on Friday night and twelve of light on Shabbat. In another version11, the first light served Man, shining for the thirty-six hours of Erev Shabbat and Shabbat, before finally becoming night, and then Adam had to learn to contend with darkness.
Avodah Zarah 8b expands this with a version from Avot D’Rabi Natan chapter 1. Elucidating the source of the Roman Saturnalia and Calends, which engendered the later pagan solstice celebrations, the Gemara tells us this: As the days passed into winter, Adam noticed in terror that the days were becoming shorter, the hours of light were becoming less. He thought the world was being destroyed, disintegrating, because of his sin. He fasted for eight days until the solstice, the darkest point of the descent into darkness. Then he saw the days brightening, becoming longer, and understood with relief that it was the way of the world. As the light grew, he made an eight-day festival, and the next year he again celebrated his reprieve12. His sons eventually forgot the original source of the holiday and used it for pagan celebration.
The Maharal understands Chanukah and its meaning, precisely, in relation to its date, at the darkest point of the year.
Centuries passed. The origins of Adam’s festival themselves fell into oblivion and into darkness. And in the period of the second Beit Hamikdash, the Syrian/Greeks decreed idol worship upon the Jews and were defeated. We know fromThe Book of Maccabees II:10, that the Rededication (Chanukat HaBayit) of Chanukah on Kislev 25, was exactly and propitiously three years to the day after the Greeks had forced the Jews to idolatry and rebellion, on the Greek idolatrous holiday on Kislev 25 of 162 BCE. It is reasonable to suppose
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