In this Torah Queery, Chaim Moshe HaLevi explores the origins of Chanukah and compares it to other winter religious festivals.
By Chaim Moshe haLevi (aka Marc Howard Landas)
Surface Similarities Between Hanukkah and Christmas. December is a very complicated time for Jews. Hanukkah sometimes comes early, coinciding with Thanksgiving. Sometimes it is late, extending into the new secular year. Either way, it always lacks the trappings and pageantry of the holiday held on the 25th. For Jews, there is no decorated tree, no magical man bringing toys, no endless on-air play of festive media. I readily admit feelings of jealousy and disconnect from the majority, something I imagine Muslims and practitioners of Eastern religions do, as well. But, I never really bought into the notion of a Hanukkah bush, so I content myself to admire the twinkling lights from afar.
Chag Urim (the Festival of Lights) and Yom haHuledet (the Day of The Birth) as they are known in Hebrew, are seemingly unique in their spiritual messages. Yet, both Hanukkah and Christmas celebrate beginnings and the onset of salvation. Hanukkah commemorates a chance for Jews to start over, fresh and clean, to worship again in a re-dedicated holy space. Christmas marks the dawn of an era with the birth of the individual who will shape a New Covenant and whose philosophy will shape a new religion. Christmas and Hanukkah share even deeper similarities.
Both festivals have “added days”. Christmas begins on December 25th and lasts for twelve days, through January 5 (in different Christian traditions the starting and ending days of the festival vary). January 1st is the eighth day after the birth, hence the day of the brit milah (circumcision) and naming of Yeshua (Jesus). Additional days were added on after the eighth day to commemorate Epiphany or Three Kings Day, the day on which the Magi arrived at the manger bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Hanukkah, which should have been seven days long (that’s how long the oil burned with no replenishment) also has an additional day tacked on the end. Yet, if the lamp stayed lit for seven nights why is Chanukah celebrated for eight days?
Well, just as there are days added on to Christmas, Sukkot, the most important holiday in ancient Judaism, had an additional day added on to it, namely Shemini Atzeret. (Shemini Atzeret, meaning “the eighth day of assembly,” is a Biblical Jewish holiday that follows the Jewish festival of Sukkot upon which Jews traditionally pray for rain for a plentiful harvest.)
December’s Sukkot Scholars in Jewish and Christian traditions have long contested December 25 as the actual nativity of Miryam’s child. Both traditions look to Jewish tradition for answers to the riddle. According to what I’ve learned through reading, research, and speaking to religious scholars, Miriam and Yosef would not have had any reason to be in Bet Lechem in December. The 25th was chosen to correspond either with the winter solstice and/or to correspond with a holiday in honor of the “unconquered sun” both of which were observed in ancient times by various peoples (Persians, Syrians, Romans) on December 25. (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, article on Mithraism).
Personally, I wonder if this manipulation of the Gregorian calendar wasn’t, at least in part, to correlate with the Jewish holiday held on the same numerical date in the Hebrew calendar’s month of Kislev. Based on most recent research, the Jewish baby Yeshua was probably born in the autumn.
In the article “When was Jesus Born?” (from a website that concerns itself with reclaiming the “Jewish roots of Christianity”) the reader finds the following discussion:
The Roman and Judean rulers knew that taking a census in winter would have been impractical and unpopular. Generally a census would take place after the harvest season, around September or October, when it would not seriously affect the economy, the weather was good and the roads were still dry enough to allow easy travel. According to the normal dates for the census, this would probably be the season of Christ’s birth. … Luke’s account of the census argues strongly against a December date for Christ’s birth. For such an agrarian society, an autumn post-harvest census was much more likely.
The article provides additional evidence to substantiate a claim that Yeshua was born on the Feast of Tabernacles, aka Sukkot. The author calculates the Annunciation (the date on which Christians celebrate the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Miryam that she would conceive and bear a son) would have occurred during Hanukkah (aka The Feast of the Dedication of the Temple from the Hebrew verb nun chaf chaf, ‘to dedicate’), “Mary being dedicated for a purpose of enormous magnitude: God’s presence in an earthly temple (tabernacle), i.e. a human body.” If one counts Hanukkah as the day of conception, assuming the normal gestation period, the baby would have been born on the 15th day of Tishrei which is Sukkot. This would verify why Yosef and Miryam couldn’t find proper lodging. All the Jews were coming to Jerusalem, probably for dual purposes, to bring pilgrimage offerings at the Temple and take part in the census.
Syncretism “Syncretism” is the historical phenomenon through which a newer religious practice blends with practices that preceded it—e.g., the same practice may be appropriated, but a different meaning is added by the new practitioners. Both Christmas and Hanukkah are syncretic traditions.
Many of the celebratory trappings of the Christian holiday originate in customs of the surrounding cultures re-framed by Christians as “pagan”. For instance, the notion of God presented as a trinity of parents and a child: a “trinity” of gods is a concept used in Sumeria (Anu, Enlil, and Enki) Egypt (Amun-Re-Ptah; Isis, Osiris, and Horus), and Rome (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva). Another example: trees used in celebratory rites: trees were used for the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when evergreen decorations celebrated the death of the old year and the birth of the new. Likewise, according to Teutonic Yuletide rites, fir trees were hung with lights and surrounded with sacrificial offerings.
I’d like to dedicate equal time to the “pagan” origins of Hanukkah. According to the Apocryphal text, II Maccabees, when Judah and the rest of the Maccabees purified the Beit haMikdash (Holy Temple), fashioned a new altar, and rekindled the menorah. The rededication was done “on the very same day that the Syrian-Greeks had originally profaned it, the 25th of Kislev.” Mere coincidence? I don’t think so. I suspect a bit of aggadic midrash (folklore) paired with that small cruse of oil that “miraculously” lasted for not just one night but seven nights.
When the Maccabees rededicated the Temple, they observed all eight days of Sukkot, the holiday when the first temple was originally dedicated by King Solomon. The Maccabees saw themselves as re-establishing an ancient ritual, the commemoration of the eight-day autumn harvest festival, the most important holiday in ancient Judaism.
Just as the early Christian practices for the December holiday modified the customs of the surrounding culture, so did the early Jewish celebrants of Hanukkah adapted the customs of their Greek oppressors. In direct response to the December festival of the Rural Dionysia, the great festival of Dionysus, the Maccabees parodied every aspect of the occasion of frivolity they had previously been compelled to observe. According to the rites of Dionysus, after purifying themselves, the devotees of this god of wine and sex clothed themselves in animal skins, crowned their heads with ivy, carried wreathed wands topped with pine cones, and went off into the hills to spend the night reveling in wild dances by torchlight shrieking ecstatic praises to their deity.
In the celebration of Hanukkah, the preliminary purifications were replaced by cleansing the Temple, the festal parade by hakkafot (processions around the altar), the carrying of wreathed wands by lulavim, wild shouts by chanted psalms, blazing torches by a rekindled menorah.
Since the rededication had been done in accordance with the laws of Sukkot, Hanukkah was made to last for eight days rather than the expected seven-nights-of-oil. So important was this event that pilgrims descended upon Jerusalem to make their way to the Holy House of God, carrying not only lulavim but wreathed wands, as well. So effectively was the parallel drawn between the two holidays that when the Jews in Jerusalem pressured the Jews in Egypt to adopt the holiday, they described it as “the December version of Sukkot.”
Hanukkah, like Sukkot, is a time of the gathering of crops. It is the time of the olive harvest, a final time to offer praise and gratitude for God’s benevolence. In a Jewish CyberMag article comparing Sukkot and Hanukkah, the author writes:
The Midrash Hanukkah states that apart from the Syrian-Greeks’ attempts to abolish the cardinal mitzvot of Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and brit milah, they set their sights on abolishing the holiday of Sukkot. The Midrash concludes by saying: “Said the Holy One, Blessed be He: It was your (the Greeks’) intention to uproot the eight day festival of Sukkot; however I will give them the eight days of Hanukkah.”
Rabbi Jay Kelman of Canada says the lesson of Hanukkah is that we are to appreciate the opportunity to practice Judaism and to gain from encounters with the rest of the world. So, this year, as you navigate your way through the secular calendar’s holiday season, celebrate your dual identities as Jews and as Americans. Be especially grateful that we live in a society in which Jews are free to live openly, to observe their faith, and to build sacred spaces in which to pray and learn. Equally, give thankfulness for living in a democratic republic where LGBTIQ people are becoming increasingly more visible, many taking on roles as Queer Warriors or, if you will, modern day Maccabees.
Chag Sameyach! A freilichin Chanukah!