Rabbi Eli Blum
Former Rosh Kollel in Cleveland
The Mishnah (BT Avodah Zarah 8a) lists the pagan holidays:
The Gemara (ibid) discusses Kalenda and Saturnura:
“Rav Chanan bar Rava said, ‘Kalenda is [celebrated for] eight days following the [winter] tekufah (solstice); Saturnura is [celebrated for] eight days preceding the [winter] tekufah. And your sign [for this is] – ”From the rear and the front You encompassed me…” (Tehilim 139:5)’ Our Rabbis taught that when Adam HaRishon saw that the days were getting shorter, he said, ‘Woe is to me. Perhaps because I have offended, the world is darkening for me, and the world is returning to tohu vavohu (the primordial state). And this is the death that was sentenced to me from Heaven.’ He arose and spent eight days fasting [and praying]. When he say the tekufat Tevet (the winter solstice) and saw that the days were getting longer, he said, ‘It is the [natural] course of the world.’ He went and established eight festival days. The following year, he established these (the days preceding the tekufah) and these (the days following the tekufah) as festivals. He established them lishem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), but they (future generations) established them for the sake of idolatry.”
In other words, these pagan holidays, which were celebrated during the eight days preceding the winter solstice and during the eight days following the winter solstice, respectively, commemorate the fact that the days are beginning to get longer. Thus, astonishingly, Chanukah corresponds to the ancient pagan holidays, which were derived from Adam HaRishon’s festival – the one he established lishem Shamayim. In fact, even in our own time, Chanukah generally coincides with the Christian holidays, which are specifically celebrated – with colored lights, a fir tree, etc. – at this very time of year.
Hence, we wonder if Chanukah has anything to do with all of this. Doesn’t Chanukah have a completely different origin? After all, we focus only on the Maccabim’s heroism and the miracle experienced by our forefathers in the Second Beit HaMikdash.
The Midrash teaches us that during Chanukah, we commemorate the original Chanukat HaMizbe’ach (dedication of the mizbe’ach) in the midbar. Although the Chanukat HaMizbe’ach took place in Nisan, it was originally supposed to be held at the beginning of Tevet. Therefore, the Rama (670) rules lihalachah that one should have a few festive meals during this time of year. (See also the Mishnah Berurah.) Thus, we once again see that this time of year is associated with a certain quality which predates the miracle of the Maccabim’s victory.
According to the famous Midrash, Aharon felt bad when all the other nisi’im (leaders) brought korbanot, but he was not asked to bring a korban for Shevet Levi. HaKadosh Baruch Hu consoled him by asserting that Aharon had something greater: Aharon “improved” the lights each and every day, but the nisi’im only brought their korbanot once.
The Ramban says that HaKadosh Baruch Hu also comforted Aharon with the thought that the mitzvah of lighting the candles will continue throughout the generations – even when the Beit HaMikdash has been destroyed – because of the miracle of Chanukah. Thus, here too, we see that some elements of Chanukah predate the Chanukah story.
The Sefat Emet draws a parallel between the eight days of Chanukah and the eight days of Succot and also between Purim and Shavuot. Moreover, the two rabbinic festivals’ association with festivals that are d’oraita (from the Torah) grants them an added dimension. Purim’s extra essence lies in the realm of kabalat haTorah, and Chanukah’s additional element is in the spheres of simcha (joy), hallel (praise), and hoda’ah (giving thanks).
Sefer HaMaccabim alludes to yet another connection between Chanukah and Succot. The mitzvot of Succot were banned that year, and therefore, after the victory and the renewal of the avodah in the Beit HaMikdash, Chanukah was celebrated in lieu of Succot.
In the midst of discussing Chanukah, the Gemara (BT Shabbat 22a) cites R’ Tanchum:
“Why is it written that ‘the pit was empty; there was no water in it?’ (Bereshit 37:24) Since it says ‘the pit was empty,’ do I not know that ‘there was no water in it?’ Rather, what is being taught by saying ‘there was no water in it?’ There was no water in it, but there were snakes and scorpions in it.”
Many commentators attempt to find some connection between this statement and Chanukah (besides the fact that the statement refers to our parsha, Parshat VaYeshev, which is read before or during Chanukah).
According to the Kedushat HaLevi, the story of the pit teaches us that when light is absent, darkness and other murky elements are permitted to enter. In other words, when there is no water in the pit, shadowy elements – such as snakes and scorpions – come in.
And this is the very essence of Chanukah. We must fight in situations where darkness initially prevails in order to illuminate with the light of holiness and Torah.
The Midrash (Pirkei DiRabi Eliezer 27) states:
“Darkness is the kingdom of Greece.”