Judaism's take on the darkness that winter brings

It is hardly a coincidence that for thousands of years, many cultures and religions have held festivals of light at this time of the year.

 WHILE IT is the darkest time of the year, in the next instant, the move toward lightening begins. (photo credit: MIIKKA LUOTIO/UNSPLASH)
WHILE IT is the darkest time of the year, in the next instant, the move toward lightening begins.
(photo credit: MIIKKA LUOTIO/UNSPLASH)

As an American immigrant who has been living in Israel for over 30 years, I still love returning to the US in December to experience the twinkling Christmas lights that bring a feeling of warmth and comfort when driving or walking through the streets of my hometown. We even had a childhood tradition of driving through neighborhoods to see the most ornate and colorful displays. 

While I appreciate that my holidays are reflective only of the Jewish calendar, there are moments I miss those lights. 

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, occurred this week on December 21. It can be a time of intense loneliness. Daytime ends early and with it, often comes cold and rain, driving people indoors and enhancing feelings of melancholy. But it can also lead people to seek out company and join together for meals and socializing to ward off a sense of isolation and despair. 

It is hardly a coincidence that for thousands of years, many cultures and religions have held festivals of light at this time of the year. The beckoning power of light in the darkness is a compelling symbol of hope and warmth.

In the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah came very early this year so that the little candles of the menorah will be sorely missed, especially as we head into the darkest and coldest days of winter.

The Talmud speaks of the winter solstice in the Babylonian Talmud (Avoda Zara 8a), where it mentions two pagan holidays – Kalenda and Saturnalia– which take place eight days before and eight days after the winter solstice. But the Talmud explains that Adam was actually the originator of these winter solstice festivals.

When Adam saw that daylight was diminishing progressively, he initially thought it was because of his sin and that the world was returning to primordial chaos and disorder. He spent eight days fasting and in prayer as a sign of his repentance – all Jewish responses to impending tragedy. 

However, when the month of Tevet arrived along with the winter solstice, he saw that the days began to lengthen, and realized that the shortening and lengthening of days was simply the order of the world. To his credit, he recognized that it was not his actions that had brought about the desired change, but the hand of God. 

To acknowledge this, Adam observed an eight-day festival. The following year, he celebrated two festivals spanning 16 days at the darkest time of the year. The first, eight days before the winter solstice, was to commemorate the days of fasting and praying. The second, eight days after the solstice, celebrated his understanding of God’s plan for the cyclical nature of the seasons. 

It is most interesting that he commemorated the days of loneliness and fear alongside days of thanksgiving. His winter solstice festivals recognized both man’s frailty in light of the unknowingness of the universe, as well as glimpses that man is given of God’s plan for the world. 

The Talmud concludes that Adam established these festivals for the sake of heaven, but the pagan Greeks later established them for the sake of idol worship. Hanukkah of course, becomes the Jewish substitute for those earlier festivals.

IN GENESIS Rabbah, there is another story about man in darkness, which seems to retell the Greek story of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods to free mankind from darkness and misery. In the rabbinic version, God’s relationship to man and fire is portrayed very differently. 

It is told that God, out of honor to the Sabbath, allowed the sun to shine for 36 hours from the sixth day until the end of the seventh day. Adam, who was created on the sixth day, did not experience darkness until the Sabbath ended. When the sun went down and darkness began to envelope Adam for the first time, he became terrified. 

God, out of compassion, showed him two flints, which he struck against each other, creating his own light to illuminate the darkness. The midrash provides a wonderful contrast between the Greek myth in which Prometheus is punished for eternity for helping mankind find warmth and light, and the midrash in which God empowers man to create fire. 

In both rabbinic stories, man comes to appreciate the light in response to experiencing darkness. Growth, transformation and renewal can only take place – on numerous levels – when we have transitions that shift us from one to the other.

While it is the darkest time of the year, in the next instant, the move toward light begins. Solstice in Latin means stilling or stopping. It refers to the sun’s apparent night-lengthening procession across the sky, which rests at the moment of the solstice before it begins to move in reverse. 

In fact, immediately after the solstice, the merest hint of a motion toward spring has already begun, reminding us that the seasons are cyclical, and just as winter is here, eventually, the rebirth of spring and the long, hot days of summer will soon return. 

The dark days of winter call on us to create light – internal and external – through religious rituals, family gatherings, and social interactions. These will sustain us until the natural light returns for longer periods during the day. 

The writer teaches Talmud and contemporary halacha at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Matan and Midreshet Torah V’Avodah.