Hanukkah in the Stone Age
Rabbi Dennis Beck-Berman
Congregation Brith Achim in Petersburg
Everybody knows the famous Chanukah story about the oil in the Temple menorah (candelabrum) miraculousy burning for eight days. But few know about the surprising story found in Babylonian Talmud ‘Avodah Zarah 8a (following Manuscript Paris 1337), “Rav Chanan son of Rava’ said: (The Roman holiday of) Kalends (New Years Day) is eight days following the (winter) solstice and Saturnalia (is observed for) eight days preceding the (winter) solstice.
The scholars learned (a Tannaitic tradition): As soon as the primordial human (Adam) saw the day(time) shrinking he thought: Woe is me! Because (of my sin in the Garden of Eden) I fouled up the world and it is getting dark on my account and (gradually) returning to primeval chaos, and this is the doom that has been decreed upon me. He sat fasting (in repentence) for eight days. As soon as the Tevet (winter) solstice passed and he saw that the day(time) was increasing. He thought: It is (just) the (natural) way of the world (that the daylight steadily decreases and then increases again at that time). Thereupon he made an eight-day holiday (after the solstice). The following year he made holidays of that one (on the) eighth day (after the solstice) and the other one (for eight days before the solstice). He (Adam) designated them for the sake of Heaven, but they (the Gentiles) designated them for idolatrous worship.”
According to this talmudic tradition, the rabbis propose that it is no coincidence both Jews and non-Jews celebrate festivals in December during the darkest days of the year. Such festivals were created by our earliest human ancestors, who were finely attuned to the rhythms of the natural world. They discovered that the hours of daylight, which had been diminishing since the fall equinox on September 22, began slowly to increase after the winter solstice on December 21. Back at the dawn of civilization winter holidays celebrated an end to the depressing daily increase of darkness and a joyous start of the daily increase of daylight. Jews merged this ancient holiday with the historical festival of Chanukah, but Romans celebrated Saturnalia and Kalends. (Some pagan customs were incorporated into Christmas traditions.)
As our world becomes increasingly darker, we kindle lights to make it brighter and brighter. Chanukah teaches that even during the darkest times there is growth and renewal beneath the surface. Let us pray that that the candles of the menorah rekindle the inner spark of holy light inside us all which longs to shine forth in the messianic age of love, peace, and joy.