From Adam to Hitchens

How Hanukka helped to fashion Judeo-Christian civilization.

hanukkah candles 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
hanukkah candles 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As in past Decembers, my aunt Irene is now organizing the family Hanukka potluck party to be held in the basement of Rabbi Reisman's shul in Flatbush. This is no small logistical feat, given the huge tribe of aunts, uncles and two-dozen married cousins and their sizable broods, all of whom make a point of attending, not least this semi-apikores from Manhattan, towing his own wife and three offspring. No one dare risk incurring the terrible wrath of Aunt Irene's guilt trip. Hanukka is the Rodney Dangerfield of Jewish festivals: thoroughly enjoyable, but enjoying little Halachic respect, a stepchild among the holidays. This is so for one reason: it isn't mentioned in the Bible. This also means that it imposes few restrictions, unlike the Torah-mandated holidays, which explains its wide popularity. Aside from menora lighting, it's all fun and games: uncles may play a hand of poker, while the children spin dreidels at their feet, playing for coins, both chocolate and real. BUT HANUKKA's historical influence is far greater than is widely appreciated. Ironically, it takes a vitriolic attack on Hanukka by none other than Christopher Hitchens to recognize the festival's overlooked importance. Few of my relatives digging into the reheated baked ziti and tuna casserole in Rabbi Reisman's basement are likely to have heard of Hitchens or his recent best-seller God is NOT Great, with its scathing attack on Hanukka that is both contradictory and misleading. Interestingly, the bomb Hitchens lobs has the wholly unintended effect of highlighting Hanukka's enormous role in shaping western civilization. FIRST, THE bomb. Hitchens' avers that: "If one could nominate an absolutely tragic day in human history, it would be the occasion that is now commemorated by the vapid and annoying holiday known as Hanukka. For once, instead of Christianity plagiarizing from Judaism, the Jews borrow shamelessly from Christians in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with "Christmas." "Vapid and annoying" is one thing; the man is certainly entitled to his opinion. But Hitchens should know better than to describe the holiday as a "shameless borrow(ing)" from Christianity. If I understand him correctly (though it's odd that a writer of his stature would need me to divine his intentions), it is that Hanukka as celebrated today is what he would describe as a plagiarism of Christmas. If so, then his meaning has been lost on many bloggers who have read his book and now think that Hanukka was really copied from Christmas, when in-fact the former predates Christianity by some four centuries. Hitchens simultaneously compounds and contradicts his assault when he "nominate(s)" Hanukka as "an absolutely tragic day in Human history." Peering through the aspersion he casts, Hitchens has correctly identified the festival as a pivotal event in time, profoundly influencing what would become, for better or - as Hitchens would have it - for worse, Western Civilization. More on this later. A BRIEF Hanukka refresher: The festival is a celebration of the victory in 165 BCE of the Maccabees, over the armies of the Hellenistic Syrians led by Antiochus Epiphanes IV. Antiochus had attempted to impose Greek culture in Judea by - among other things - banning circumcision and Shabbat, and by desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem. After three years of war, the Maccabees retook the Temple, cleansed its pagan abominations, rebuilt its sacred instruments and in an act from which Hanukka takes its name, rededicated the building. The eight-day festival was meant to evoke a dedication ceremony which occurred eight centuries earlier - that of King Solomon's First Temple. To this day Jews celebrate the holiday by lighting the menora for eight straight nights, adding an additional candle each night. But could the familiar Hanukka story mask a much earlier festival? In his classic 1938 work The Jewish Festivals, Hayyim Schauss writes that a holiday's true origins aren't found in "the stories told in connection with that newer festival but (in) its rites and ceremonies." There are several conflicting Jewish traditions regarding the origin of the candle lighting. The most famous, but least reliable of these appeared in the Gemara centuries after the actual event: A jug containing just enough oil for one day miraculously kept the Temple menora alight for eight whole days. There are other lesser-known stories that attempt to explain the candle lighting rituals, all somewhat contradictory. Schauss felt that the true reason for lighting candles lay in the flames themselves. He was certain that that the Festival of Lights was originally a "nature festival, one of those semi-holidays with a heathenish background that was bound up with…folk beliefs." What sort of "heathenish" festival might that be? The answer actually lies in the Gemara (Avoda Zara 8:1), which relates a tantalizing but neglected Midrash, hinting at a Hanukka of both great antiquity and deep universality. It describes Adam, freshly evicted from Eden, becoming increasingly anxious, as the days grow ever shorter: "When Adam saw the day diminishing, he wailed 'Woe is me! Because of my sin, my world is turning dark, reverting to tohu vavohu [primeval chaos and void]. This is the death sentence decreed upon me in heaven.'" Hoping to return to God's good graces and stop the days from shrinking, Adam "fasted and prayed for eight days." As the days begin to grow, Adam comes to recognize the yearly cycle of days that wax and wane as the "way of the world." He promptly converts his eight days of contrition and atonement into an annual celebration. THE TALMUDIC rabbis add that while Adam's winter solstice holiday was "well- intentioned," those established by his descendants were not. These festivals, identified by the Talmudists as Saturnia and Kalanda, straddled the winter solstice, and were pagan in nature. How interesting that the pagan Kalanda was eventually transformed into what Kalanda is today, Greek for Christmas caroling. Here then is a Talmudic source pointing to a single, primordial origin for Hanukka, pagan holidays and Christmas: a celebration of the winter solstice. The Festival of Lights then is the Jewish cloak for a far more ancient festival commemorating that one fateful moment at winter's start, when the advance of the darkness of tohu vavohu is finally halted and ultimately, happily, pushed back. At the same time, Hanukka has exercised a powerful influence on the centuries that followed. Hitchens makes this case succinctly, as he ruefully notes that the Maccabean triumph over the Hellenists allowed Judaism, "eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy) and thus ineluctably to the birth of Islam. We could…have been spared the whole thing." HITCHENS is a modern twist on Bilaam, the Moabite prophet whose attempt to curse our ancestors was inverted into a blessing. Intending to savage Hanukka, Hitchens inadvertently salvages it from its secondary status in Jewish tradition, conferring upon it a pivotal and singular importance. In doing so he has helped elevate Hanukka into a new role, connecting distant antiquity on one hand, with what became Judeo-Christian western civilization on the other. On such an uplifting and lofty note, I look forward to aunt Irene's potato latkas.