Reindeer and Latkes: Aren’t the Winter Holidays Suspiciously Similar?
Why Hanukkah Is Not 'Christmas For the Jews'
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Do you ever feel uncomfortable when Hanukkah gets bunched together with all the other “winter holidays”? When people talk about Hanukkah almost as if it’s just the Jewish version of Christmas? Isn’t this kind of cultural melding exactly what the Maccabees were fighting against?
Well, it turns out that this isn’t just a modern misunderstanding. For thousands of years, people have noticed the similarities between Hanukkah and other “winter festivals.” And surprisingly, the Talmud itself seems to portray Hanukkah in a very similar vein to – ready for this? – an ancient pagan winter festival. Yeah, we know, it sounds crazy, but there’s an eerie and undeniable resemblance between those ancient rituals and our beloved holiday.
So what are we to make of this? Join Rabbi Fohrman as he confronts these difficult questions head-on. Through an in-depth analysis of two Talmudic passages, Rabbi Fohrman leads us on a journey to uncover the ancient roots of Hanukkah. By exploring the similarities and differences between the pagan winter solstice and the celebration of Hanukkah, we can come to understand what the unique quality of Hanukkah really is, and get a definitive answer to the question: Is Hanukkah just the Jewish Christmas? (Spoiler alert: the answer is a resounding “no”...)
Hey everybody, it is Rabbi David Fohrman here. Hanukkah is around the corner, and how do you know? Well, if you live in Israel, the stores they start selling the jelly donuts a month in advance. But here in the States, as heretical as it might sound, you often first feel Hanukkah in the air when you're at the mall, and there you see a familiar scene: The orange glow of the electronic menorah mingling with the flickering lights of the Christmas tree. The greeting cards in the Hallmark store they proclaim "Happy holidays!" With a, kind of, bland co-mingling of the winter holidays, with religion conveniently taken out of the mix.
And I think many of us fear that dreaded moment, as you're doing your gift shopping and your child turns to you and asks: "Hey, Mom, Dad, is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas or something? I mean, we get presents, they get presents; we light candles, they have those lit up trees and our Christian neighbors even light candles in their windows every year. Is Hanukkah just a Jewish Christmas?"
Is Hanukkah Just Christmas Time for the Jews?So you explain to your kid: "Of course not, little Jimmy. You see, Hanukkah has nothing to do with that jolly red guy in the suit over there. It's about a small band of Jews, the Maccabees, who rebelled against the Greeks. Not only did the Maccabees defeat their armies, but they recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple and they restored our ability to practice our religion."
So, little Jimmy, he nods his head, but as you leave the mall with your bag of presents, you can't help thinking: "You know, Hanukkah's a holiday about a group of Jews who refused to identify with the dominant, non-Jewish culture. Isn't it a little strange then, that for us, right here in the parking lot, between Nordstrom and the Apple Store, our culture and theirs just seem to melt into each other?"
So you get into the car, and little Jimmy's question continues to echo in your ears: Is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas? Is it just a strange coincidence that these two holidays always seem to hang out together at this time of year? What's going on here? You shake your head and you drive away.
Jewish Christmas: Good News, Bad NewsOK, so I have some good news for you and some bad news. Good news first. Hanukkah is definitely not the Jewish Christmas – it can't be. Hanukkah predates the advent of Christianity by some 200 years, so it can't in any way have copied Christmas.
But now the bad news: It turns out that you and Jimmy aren't the first ones who've been thinking about all this. Turns out that some academic scholars have been too. And some of them claim that there is no coincidence here at all: Hanukkah and Christmas coincide with one another because – make sure you're sitting down for this – they're actually both derived from the same ancient pagan holiday.
Is Hanukkah's Origin Like Christmas or Pagan Winter Holidays?Now, that may seem horrifying – but, relax, I get it, take a deep breath, don't throw rocks at the screen just yet – let me actually just take you through their case for a minute, then we'll talk about it:
In 1947, a scholar named Julian Morgenstern wrote a series of articles that tried to trace the roots of Hanukkah to earlier festivals. As it happens, throughout the ancient world, pagan cultures would often celebrate a holiday just as the frost was really beginning to settle in – right at the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Morgenstern claimed that Hanukkah was modeled after those holidays – in particular, a holiday observed in ancient Syria. That pagan winter holiday, as it happened, involved fire rituals; and, whenever those Syrians would go and dedicated a new temple to their pagan gods, they'd do it on the auspicious day of that holiday, right around solstice time.
Any of this sound familiar, folks? I mean, let's remember: what does the name Hanukkah actually mean? It means, "dedication"; it's the day we rededicated our Temple to the Almighty. And lo and behold, we got these fire rituals, too, right? I mean we've got these candles that we light every day of Hanukkah. Well, according to Morgenstern, we're copycats; our holiday is just a spruced up version of this pagan solstice celebration. That's Morgenstern's theory.
Ok, now look, if he's right, if the Maccabees were really just mimicking their pagan contemporaries, I don't know about you, but for me, that would be a real letdown. So what's the truth here? Is Hanukkah, you know, just a Jewish version of that universal winter holiday that we tacked some sort of spiritual message to? Is Morgenstern right? Is Morgenstern an idiot? Have we've all been sold a lie? What's going on here?
Tracing the Origins of HanukkahTo look for an answer, I want to take you on a journey through two Rabbinic texts that might, together, help us make sense out of all this. These two passages in the Talmud were brought to my attention by Rabbi Ami Silver, one of our collaborators here at Aleph Beta, during a discussion we had about Hanukkah several months ago. Anyway, I think that when we look at these two passages from the Talmud, and their implications, we'll see that the Sages themselves may have thought Morgenstern was right in one sense – and so very wrong in another sense.
The first Talmudic passage may be familiar to some of you – it appears in Tractate Shabbos, and it is the text from the Talmud that gives the source for Hanukkah itself. The second Talmudic passage, in Tractate Avodah Zarah, seems to come out of left field, having nothing to do with Hanukkah at all – but, I think there is evidence that these texts somehow are in conversation with each other; that, to really understand either one, you almost have to understand both. When we do understand both – I think we will also get to something rather profound, even shocking, about the true spiritual roots of Hanukkah.
Shabbat 22a – Mai Hanukkahs
Ok let's just start with the first text here. It's in the Babylonian Talmud, in masechet Shabbat, page 22a, it goes like this:
מאי חנוכה… What's Hanukkah?
בכ"ה בכסליו… beginning on the 25th day of the month of Kislev
יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון… there is this Hanukkah period for eight days
דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון… in which we don't deliver eulogies and we don't fast.
Now actually let me stop there before we even go any further, just think about that basic definition of Hanukkah for a minute. You know, what is Hanukkah? These days . . . דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון… during which we don't deliver eulogies, we don't fast. I mean, what is going on there?
You know, if the Rabbi's asked the question: what is Hanukkah? They seem to be looking for a definition. What would you expect a good one-line answer to be? You know, maybe a line about what we are celebrating. The victory in the war. The miracle with the lights. Maybe an explanation of what we do during the holiday – we all gather around with our families and light candles at the entrance to our homes. After you mention all that important stuff, maybe you'd throw in a line at the end that says: by the way, since this is a festival, that means no fasting or eulogizing for eight days. But, you know, you wouldn't start with that as your one line answer to the question, 'what is Hanukkah?'
But then the rabbis do. That's exactly what they do. They say: What's Hanukkah? "These are the eight days in the middle of winter in which you can't fast or eulogize people when they die!" Only once they lay out that all-important definition, do the Rabbis then go on to tell you a reason why you don't fast and you don't eulogize. There was this military victory, a miracle with lights, the Temple was restored, all of that. You know, so why is not fasting or eulogizing listed as such a critical definition of the holiday itself? I mean, if you conducted ten "man on the street" interviews about the most basic observance of Hanukkah – how many people would immediately tell you about the lack of eulogies you hear on these days?
Anyway, let's go back to the text and, just to kind of finish it up, here's what else the Rabbi's say about Hanukkah. These are the days we don't eulogize, we don't fast, why?
שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל… Because when the Greeks invaded the Temple…
טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל… they defiled all of the oil that was there.
וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי… and when the Kingdom of Chashmonai – i.e. the Maccabees – when they rose up against the Greeks…
ונצחום… and they defeated them.
בדקו… they searched around…
ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן… and they could only find one jar of oil…
שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול… that was still sealed with the seal of the High Priest.
ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד… and it only contained enough oil to light the Menorah for a single day.
נעשה בו נס… A miracle occurred…
והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים… and they were able to light from it for eight consecutive days.
לשנה אחרת… The next year…
קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים... they established these eight days as a festival…
בהלל והודאה… a time of praise and thanksgiving to God.
I'm actually going to suggest to you that this whole business about "no fasting or eulogising" that we were talking about; is not actually a minor detail, as we've been assuming.You know, as crazy as it sounds, I think it really is, in the Rabbinic view, a kind of basic definition of the holiday. I think the way we'll begin to understand that is actually by looking at that second Talmudic text I was talking about before. So, let's dive into that now: Avoda Zara 8a.
Avoda Zara 8a – Pagan Winter Holidays
It appears in the opening chapter of tractate Avoda Zara, 8a, the Gemara there discusses two pagan holidays. Yeah, you heard me right: Our Talmud – it discusses holidays that really aren't our holidays at all, but holidays of pagan origin. Just like the holidays Morgenstern was talking about. Now, technically, the Gemara is doing this in order to warn Israelites about things they should refrain from doing around these holidays so as to distance themselves from pagan practices – but in the process, the Gemara ends up telling us something fascinating about the origin of those Pagan holidays. Here's what the Gemara says:
רב חנן בר רבא אמר – Rav Chanan son of Rava said...
קלנדא ח' ימים אחר תקופה – the festival called Kalanda, it takes place for eight days following the Tekufah, which means, the winter solstice…
סטרנורא ח' ימים לפני תקופה – the festival Saturnura, it takes place during the eight days leading up to the winter solstice.
So, then the Gemara goes on to explain where these two Pagan holidays come from. Turns out, the rabbis say, that the story of these holidays begins way back in the early days of Creation itself:
ת"ר… the Rabbis taught in the Brisa…
לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך… the origin of these holidays came from Adam. When the very first man, Adam, when he first saw that the days, they were becoming increasingly shorter [in other words, he experienced what we would call the onset of winter – but remember, he is the first man who ever lived, so he never experienced winter before. So when he saw this, the days getting shorter]
… אמר… He said to himself…
אוי לי… "woe unto me!
שמא בשביל שסרחתי
עולם חשוך בעד… Maybe it was because of my sin, eating from that tree of knowledge, maybe it was because of that, that I brought ruin to the world, the universe that's growing darker and darker? …
וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו… It's returning to a state of primordial chaos the chaos and emptiness that existed before the universe was even created!
וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים… maybe this is the punishment in death that God decreed for me!" (Because remember, God had warned Adam that if he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, death would be the consequence).
So, עמד וישב ח' ימים בתענית ובתפלה… So as these days were getting shorter Adam began to fast and pray for eight straight days.
כיון שראה תקופת...
טבת…With the arrival of the solstice and the beginning of the winter season…
וראה יום שמאריך והולך… he saw a day that began to get a bit longer.
So, אמר… He said …
מנהגו של עולם הוא… "oh my goodness… this is just the way the world works! It's Minhago shel olam – It's the cycle of nature!"
הלך ועשה שמונה
ימים טובים… so then he went and he celebrated for the next eight days.
האחרת… The very next year…
עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים… He made both sets of these eight days – the days before solstice when he initially fasted and the days after the solstice when he celebrated – he celebrated both these days!
And now, the Gemara adds, almost parenthetically:
הוא… Adam HaRishon, the very first man…
הוא קבעם לשם שמים… he established these two holidays as festivals for God – leshem Shamayaim.
והם… but they, the idolaters that came after him, those pagans who celebrated his original holidays, Kalanda and Saturnura, they called them …
קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים… they established those very same holidays to worship the stars, leshem avodat kochavim.
Ok, so according to the Gemara, Kalanda and Saturnura, these Pagan holidays, they're actually perversions of earlier holidays established by none other than the very first man in existence, Adam. And here's the really interesting thing though. This whole Talmudic discussion concerning the roots of these pagan solstice holidays – this discussion echoes, in very eerie ways, that first Talmudic discussion we looked at, the one about Hanukkah. And you can see that if you just, sort of, put the two Rabbinic texts side-by-side and compare them. Listen to the words… listen to the ideas…
Eight Days of Hanukkah, Eight Days of Pagan HolidaysSo let's begin with that text in avoda zara. That text it was describing these eight day festivals, these pagan festivals that take place right smack in the middle of winter… And, you know, lo and behold, the rabbis – with Hanukkah – they are also talking to us about an eight day festival that occurs right smack in the middle of the winter.
And now, look at the actual text of these two Talmudic statements, the actual Hebrew words in which the rabbis articulated their ideas: Look at Adam's solstice holidays, how do the rabbis talk about it? They say: לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים, the following year, Adam made both of these eight day periods into holidays. As it happens, we get the exact same formula, one other place in the Talmud – and only one other place in the Talmud – in the entire thousands of pages of the Babylonian Talmud – we get it when the Rabbis are describing the creation of Hanukkah.
קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים...
...the very next year after the miracle with the oil, the
rabbis established these days as holidays.
Y'know, it is a striking, unusual phrase; לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים – it's a phrase that resonates powerfully with the Sages' description of Adam's establishment of his solstice celebrations.
Ok, but you know, as it turns out – the more you look at these two rabbinic texts, the more you see the correspondences between them. Because it's not just the idea of 'eight day winter holidays' that connects them; and it's not just even the language the rabbis used to describe the establishment of these holidays, a year after some initial event – קבעום ועשאו ימים. There is even more in the rabbis' characterization of Hanukkah that reminds us of Adam's holidays.
Comparing Adam's Winter Holiday to HanukkahFor example... Remember how Adam was watching the the world get increasingly dark, but then when the process begins to reverse itself, he actually sees the sunlight hours increase – and then he celebrates for eight days? Does that remind you of anything with Hanukkah? Think darkness, and now think increasing light – and an eight day celebration to mark it?
Yeah that reminds us of Hanukkah quite a bit, doesn't it? I mean – how do you celebrate Hanukkah? Don't you light one candle the first night, and the next night a second candle, and then you keep on adding candles – more light – night after night until on the eighth night, you've got this whole blaze going on that table by the windowsill? And you know we do that, for the reason the rabbis tell us about in their Talmudic statement about that small amount of oil, that looked like it was just going to burn for a day…there would be no more light in the Temple. It would be a dark and cold place. We would be enveloped by that darkness. But then a miracle occurred:
נעשה בו נס והדליקו
ממנו שמונה ימים... that oil lasted for eight days, the light it kept on shining in the face of darkness.
So we celebrate that increased light in the Temple by lighting a Menorah in our homes, increasing the amount of light in our homes – day after day, too. So all in all, doesn't our celebration of Hanukkah remind us of Adam's? The retreat of darkness and the gift of increasing light? We are celebrating the fact that, miraculously, the light came back after it appeared it was going away for good.
In fact though, there's actually even one more connection between the texts. Remember how we were puzzled as to the rabbis' description of Hanukkah? They described it as these eight days when you don't fast and you don't eulogize the dead, and we said, who cares? Why do the rabbis lead with this? Well, isn't it curious that these themes, too, show up in Adam's holidays all the way back at the very beginning of Creation? For what exactly does Adam do that during that very first winter of Creation? He saw the world getting dark, and he feared its destruction and he feared his imminent death – and in response, עמד וישב ח' ימים בתענית Adam fasted for eight days, and he declared something while he fasted: "Woe unto me," He said, "I've destroyed the world!". Look at that: There was Adam, fasting and preemptively eulogizing the dead – eulogizing himself, eulogizing the entire world.
So, fascinatingly, the definition the rabbis give to Hanukkah seems to be born of the stuff of Adam's very first festivals: Adam had fasted and mourned as he preemptively lamented his own death, and then he stopped doing that when light returned and his hope in the future was restored. And every year, on Hanukkah, we abstain from fasting and mourning, just like he did.
So all in all, we have quite a few parallels between the rabbis' description of Adam's holidays, and their description of the Hanukkah festival. But, y'know, that seems kind of mysterious. Because what could those connections possibly mean? I mean yeah it's true Hanukkah has light and darkness, Adam had light and darkness. But big deal. Hanukkah still doesn't seem essentially connected to Adam's holiday. It's a holiday about victory over Greeks, about miracles with lamps. Adam's holiday – that's about being scared the world is going to end. Why would the Sages intimate that there is some sort of basic connection here?
Well, maybe Hanukkah isn't only a holiday that celebrates an isolated historical event in the 2nd century B.C.E. It does celebrate that event, to be sure, but maybe in doing so, it is touching on something deeper. It touches on a fear – a fear so elemental, so fundamentally human, that it relates back to the very first person who ever walked the earth. Hanukkah and Adam's holiday are both about a terrifying encounter with darkness, and an attempt by humans to respond to that. Let me explain what I mean.
Connecting the Winter Parallels to HanukkahSo let's start with Adam. What exactly was his fear when he first experienced the waning sunlight of winter?
Take a look again at the language the Talmud uses when it describes Adam's response to the ever increasing darkness. It says: שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו – "I've sinned," Adam says, "and now, maybe, God is returning the world to Tohu VaVohu, the primordial chaos, to the emptiness that existed before God formed this beautiful world." Adam thinks that Creation itself is actually being undone.
And you know what, he may have had good reason for that. Because go back to the very beginning of the Torah, to the description of that original chaos – of tohu v'vohu… וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם – "The earth tohu v'vohu, darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit, or the wind, of God hovered over the face of the waters."
So look at that description: There's water everywhere there's darkness, there's wind. What does it remind you of? Darkness, water, wind? It's like a winter storm. Adam, in experiencing his first winter, was seeing a scary reflection of primordial winter, of tohu vavohu, of chaos, of lifelessness coming into being all around him.
Beneath Adam's fear of the dark was an even deeper fear: The Creator, the Source of Life, He's retreating from this project He began, this project called Creation. God Himself is withdrawing from the world.
Dark Winter HolidaysPut yourself in Adam's shoes – what was it like to experience that fear? Here you are, you first set foot upon the earth. You wake up – it's a brave new world, you marvel at the world around you. There's the heavens, the blue sky, the lush trees the plant life, the sound of the birds and animals roaming the earth. You are sustained by this fertile earth, the ground of life from which you were born; and you receive nourishment from the sweet fruit of the trees and the vegetation that seems to grow all around you.
But as the days go on, you begin to notice a disconcerting pattern. Ever since you ate from that one tree that God warned you not to eat from, those dark nights – they seem to be getting longer; those light periods of the day – they seem to be getting shorter. You recall that God had warned you about eating from that tree; He said that it would bring death to the world – and suddenly, a terrible fear takes hold of you. This must be what God meant. The world is dying… the Giver of All Life is leaving..
What does a world look like when the Creator leaves? The days are growing colder and darker, the energy is bleeding out of this once vibrant world. Green leaves are turning brown; they're rotting, they're dying on the earth. Trees that were once lush are now bones. The trees that gave you fruit, they aren't providing fruit anymore. Soil that was soft and fertile is dead and hard. The sun that provided the world with light, warmth, energy… it seems to be slipping away, day by day.
And how does Adam react to this terrible realization? He begins to fast, to eulogize to mourn the dying world. When Adam believes that God is retreating from the world, he loses all hope. Seeing the withering world around him, Adam is left in despair.
And then, after eight days of his mournful fasting, something incredible happens. The sun – it shines for a bit longer than it had the day before. When Adam sees this, he is shaken out of his terrible fear; he realizes that God hasn't abandoned the world after all. … God never left His world, never left him, …The darkness that he experienced was actually minhago shel olam – it's just the way the world works, it's part of the cycle of nature. This darkness, the world was now cycling back into more and more light. It's going to be okay.
And Adam celebrated that moment. The following year, when winter rolled around again, Adam actually established two holidays – not just a holiday during the days of increasing light, but one during the eight days of increasing darkness, too. He's celebrating what he learned that first winter: that God is with him in the darkness as much as He was with him in the light. God doesn't abandon His world.
But Adam's fear, if salved, was not entirely put to rest. For over time, a version of that fear would resurface. It happened right around the time of the Hanukkah story. At that moment in history, God seemed to be withdrawing also.
The story of the Jewish people seemed to be coming to an end. Think about the Jewish experience during the historical events leading up to Hanukkah.. The land of Israel, it was was under Greek rule; there was no more prophecy, even the right to practice Torah was being abolished. There were statues of foreign gods in the Temple, and Greek culture was permeating every corner of the civilized world. Even worse, the enemy itself was hard to define: Many Jews decided to abandon their heritage and become Greeks themselves; they were called Hellenists. Brother, turning against brother. It was a moment of deep spiritual darkness for us as a nation. Like night, it was hard to know what was what; everything was confusing now, disorienting, frightening. The world that we knew was unraveling.
As the Jews of that time were witnessing this new reality, they felt a version of Adam's fear: God had retreated from our world. The question is: Would that retreat be permanent? Has God abandoned His people – cast us away, into the dark hands of chaos, of Hellenists, of the Greek empire?
Hanukkah has an answer to that question. And interestingly, it is not quite the same as Adam's answer was. It is as if the Maccabees response to darkness is an evolution of Adam's response to darkness, a way of building upon Adam's answer. To see what I mean, consider this: Until now, we've talked a lot about the similarities between Adam's holiday and Hanukkah. But there are important differences between those holidays and those differences tell a story. What are the differences? What is that story?
Differences Between Hanukkah's Origin and Adam's Winter HolidayWell, The Talmud clued us in to them. Start by asking yourself this: In each story, Adam and Hanukkah, what is the source of light, and who is responsible for that light?
In Adam's story, the source of light is God, that's the sun. In the story of Hanukkah, seemingly, the source of light is man, it is we who kindles a flame. Adam's holiday celebrates a time when God lit up the sky. But Hanukkah, the holiday that we celebrate, commemorates a time when people lit a lamp. People were responsible for first bringing light back to the world, God responded to their action, when He kept the flame burning.
Moreover, when Adam celebrates the coming of light, how does he describe why it came? He calls it: "minhago shel olam". The natural order of things. There are cycles of light and darkness, and that's just the way God made the world, Adam realizes. When the Maccabees celebrate the perpetuation of the Menorah's light for eight days, they aren't celebrating some natural cycle of things. As the Talmud puts it, "Na'asah bo nes", a miracle was performed for them. They are really celebrating the very opposite of Adam's phenomenon: An overturning of the cycles of laws of nature. They are celebrating a miracle.
What reason might there be for these critical differences? What story do these critical differences tell? The key is I think, that Adam, he's celebrating the revival of God's light in nature. Hanukkah though, it celebrates the revival of God's light in a different world – in the world of history.
You see, Adam's fear, it revolved around God leaving the Natural world – the world that the Creator had set up. The Maccabees, on the other hand, their fear revolved around the possibility that God had abandoned the world of history; that God was no longer present in the landscape of human affairs.
You see, these two worlds, they are very different. The world of nature is fundamentally a world controlled by God, not man. God unilaterally sets up the way the world works, and Adam's deeds it doesn't change that – for better or for worse. That's his realization that the increasing light is due to minhago shel olam: It is God who is regulates the motion of the heavenly spheres. Who's responsible for the orbits of the moons and planets that give us cycles of light and darkness in the world. It is God who is responsible for winter and for summer.
All told, Adam was a passive recipient in this process. If anything, his initial mistake was that he thought that the world was going dark because of his actions. His great relief came when he realized that he had been wrong – that God would never leave him, that the cycles of times were impervious to his failings. God would never leave this world that He had created – God would never leave him. In history, though, it is not so.
You see in the course of history, man's actions count. History is really "his story" – man's story, quite literally, the story of the human project. It's the story that we human beings weave together with our Creator. In this story, there is a kind of dance between God and man. We can take a step towards God and He can step towards us. Or we can take a step back, and He can take a step back, too.
So what happens when we sense God retreating from our story? That's the key question the Maccabees faced. And their answer was not a repeat of Adam's answer; it was an inversion of it.
You see Adam, he fasted and he mourned the darkness, he eulogized himself and the loss of the world. The Maccabees understood that in history, you can't afford to do that. Minhago shel olam won't come around and lift you out of the darkness. In our story, if we feel that God is leaving us – we need to actually take action. We can't wait for light to arrive to reassure us that God is here; on the contrary, if we want God to be here, we need to invite Him back, we need to find a way to kindle some light of our own.
And the truth is, it's actually a little more complex than this. You might stand back and look at Adam and look at Hanukkah and say: In the case of Adam, the source of light was God; in the case of Hanukkah, the source of light was man. We kindled the light. The moral of the story is that in history man acts on his own.
But that's only half the story. Yeah it's true that man kindled the light with Hanukkah, but it's not really true that we were fully responsible it. It was God that, through a quiet miracle, kept it burning for eight days. On Hanukkah, God partnered with us in the creation of our story. God turned history – his story, man's story – into the shared story of God and man.
On Hanukkah, the Maccabees accurately felt God taking a step back, removing Himself from the affairs of men. But they did not respond by eulogizing that so much as they responded by combating it. They chose to act, to bring light back into the world rather than give in to the darkness. They chose to fight a battle – a battle that seemed to be futile. They chose to light the Menorah, even if only for a day – an act that also seemed to be futile.
The Maccabees, they took these actions because they were convinced that these were not futile actions, even if the odds were stacked against them. They were doing something good and right and noble – and even if they didn't have the capacity to finish the job on their own, that was OK. You don't have to finish the job. They were inviting God back into the world, as their partners. And God responded in kind. God smiled on their efforts. The war was won. The Menorah stayed lit, for eight long days, until humans could cobble together the resources to process more pure oil.
Ironically, God's presence in our shared world of history, it can often shine even more brightly than God's presence in the world of Nature, the world that God rules by Himself. You know in nature, Adam saw God's presence in light that was just "minhago shel olam", the function of the orderly cycles of nature – but look when man invites God back into history by lighting our own light, how does God reciprocate? His reciprocation transcends the "way of the world – mihago shel olam"; God's involvement takes the form of what we human beings call "a miracle". The continued light of the lamp that was supposed to last one day but lasted eight – that was a miracle. But it is not the only example of a miracle like that.
Anytime humans act in history by proactively bringing justice, by bringing kindness, goodness, Godliness into the world – anytime we do that and find that, improbably, the flame they've kindled does not go out; anytime that happens we have witnessed a miracle too.
Is Hanukkah Just a Jewish Winter Holiday?So was Morgenstern right? Well, he was both right and very wrong. Yes, Hanukkah is the Jewish solstice holiday, a modern iteration of an ancient solstice holiday decreed first by Adam. But Hanukkah, it is not an imitation of pagan solstice rituals, it is actually a departure from them.
Think about it: Adam – he intended his festivals to mark God's willingness to put a sense of order into the world He created. The pagans, they had a corrupted vision of that order. They created a religion. They looked at the stars and their orderly transit through the heavens and to say the "buck stops there". The stars are as high as the heavens go. It is they to whom we direct our worship.
Adam's holidays, then, were not merely corrupted when later generations began celebrating the stars, the message of hope and renewal became undone. Adam's holidays were transformed into days that behind the merriment were really about despair and hopelessness. Because what is it like to live by the mercy of the blind forces of nature? It's a life of perpetual mourning. The circus-like atmosphere Saturnalia – it's simply a salve, it was simply a balm for a darker despair. Eat, drink, and be merry today – for tomorrow we will die, alone, in an uncaring world, a deterministic system governed by the stars. The reckless abandon of Saturnalia, it was in a deep sense, an articulation of a life of despair; a life devoid of a caring God who responds to the currents of human reality. The solstice, in the pagan worldview, is a time that grants us one more day, maybe even one more year, of life under the unforgiving orbits of the sun and the earth.
Hanukkah opposes all that. It is a holiday that further refines Adam's festivals, rather than a holiday that corrupts them. Hanukkah stands for the notion that history is a world that is different than the world of nature. Yes, God imposed order on nature – but the world of history, mankind's unfolding story, that's a world where goodness and justice are the shared province of God and man. History is our story, and therefore we bear the responsibility of taking the first step.
If we sense a coldness, a growing evil in the world; if we sense encroaching darkness; even if we sense God withdrawing from our world – as sad as that is, we must not give in to the sadness. We must not mourn and eulogize ourselves. We must seize the responsibility to act – to kindle a light, however futile it may seem. If we do, miracles are no longer out of the question. God can meet our outstretched hand with a Divine touch of His own. We can, and must, invite God into our story.