Chappy Chanukah!

Rather than my usual Chanukah shpiel about why Chanukah actually is a very important holiday, I’d like to share with you a new Chanukah related text that I studies recently. If your Talmud is handy and you’d like to study along, you can turn with me now in Avodah Zarah to page 8a. If you’re using a Schottenstein, the translation of this section is on page 8a(3).

The Rabbis are discussing various pagan winter solstice celebrations, which happen to last for eight days. They discuss Calenda and Saturnalia. Then we get a real wild card of a story.

“The Rabbis taught in a Baraita: When Adam, the first man, experienced the first winter of creation and saw the duration of each successive daytime gradually decreasing, he said, ‘Woe is to me! Perhaps I have sinned. It is becoming a darkened world for me, and the world is returning to a state of astonishing emptiness; and this then is the form that death sentence decreed upon me from heaven will take.’

“So at the very end of the fall, when the days were at their shortest, Adam arose and engaged in fasting and prayer for eight days. However, once he experienced the winter solstice, and then saw the duration of each successive daytime gradually increasing, he said, ‘It is the natural course of the world for the days to lengthen and shorten in regular cycles.’

“He went and established eight festival days. The following year, he established these days preceding the winter solstice and those days following the winter solstice ad festival days.

“He established them for the sake of heaven, but the idolaters of future generations corrupted them and established them for the sake of idolatry.”

The text then launches into a humorous discussion of the number of horns that the ox that Adam sacrificed to God during his first morning on Earth because he was overjoyed that the sun had risen again.

What do you think about this in light of Chanukah? Does this say something about Chanukah? I’m seriously looking for responses to this. Please do comment. Then I’ll tell you what I think later in Chanukah.

9 Responses to Chappy Chanukah!

  1. David December 4, 2007 at 7:33 pm #

    Yasher koach, bro.

  2. Lauren December 5, 2007 at 9:33 am #

    I like this theory a lot better than the miracle of the oil drowning out the civil war between the Hasmoneans and the Hellenized Jews…. I guess the existence of both is a good example of the creative dichotomy between myth-illustrated philosophy and more historically accurate rationalization.

    (Despite the plethora of multi-syllabic words I crammed into that last sentence, I did not manage to use both “dichotomy” and “plethora” in the same essay. My 8th grade math teacher once told our class that such a combination guaranteed an “A” on any assignment. Umm, you aren’t grading these comments, are you?)

  3. davidamwilensky December 5, 2007 at 9:45 am #

    A+

  4. elfsdh December 5, 2007 at 4:09 pm #

    ‘It is the natural course of the world for the days to lengthen and shorten in regular cycles.’

    Interesting that the midrash actually has Adam taking a naturalistic view rather than the more obvious conclusion to the hypothesis: ‘Because of my eight days of fasting, God forgave my sins, and now the days are getting longer!’

  5. BDS December 5, 2007 at 6:15 pm #

    I don’t think the text has anything to do with Chanukkah at all, but is rather a polemic against Christianity. These types of polemics got Jews in trouble in the Middle Ages and there were any number of Talmud burnings because of it. Also, it’s in Avodah Zarah, idol worship. I seriously doubt the rabbis were saying that Chanukkah was mixed up with idolatry. I do believe that the rabbis were implying or outright stating that Christianity was mixed up with idolatry. Remember the third commandment in the decalogue: lo tisa et-shem Adonai Elohekhah lashav… which I believe is mistranslated as “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God…” The thing is, that lashav is really “as an equivalent” and I believe as Dr. Sperling taught, that this is a commandment against syncretism. The example given here is an example of Christian syncretism, bringing in a pagan holiday and making it “Christian” so it’s okay to observe. In Judaism, not so okay.

    Happy Chanukkah!

  6. Aaron December 6, 2007 at 7:19 pm #

    Here’s what I think: The darkness represents the period of our history when we were forced to abandon our religion and follow the ways of the Greeks. It was indeed a dark time for us. The increasing daytime represents the brighter times in our people’s history (such as the victory of the Macabees, and our subsequent kindling of Chanukah lights). It is interesting that Adam says “It is the natural course of the world for the days to lengthen and shorten in regular cycles.”
    Similarly, people throughout the world experience bad times (the days shorten, and dark falls more quickly) and good times (the days lengthen, there is more light).

  7. jepaikin December 12, 2007 at 8:03 am #

    I must agree with BDS. I think it’s quite clear that the daf is a polemic against Christianity. BUT, in a beautiful display of syncretism, it becomes a wonderful midrash about the festival.

    Given the heavy sentiments against paganism tied to Chanukah, it’s no wonder the rabbis would want to reinforce the “Jewishness” of a winter celebration.

    Whether or not Adam celebrated God’s glory through the seasons, or the rabbis jut wanted to yell some more at the evil Christians… does it matter? What else can we glean from the text?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Eight lights later… « - December 12, 2007

    […] wrote here about a page of Talmud I had never seen before that I found to be somewhat Chanukah-related. If you […]

  2. Chappy Chanukah–It’s still my favorite holiday | Jewschool - December 9, 2009

    […] What follows is my annual defense of Chanukah’s ascendancy in contemporary American Jewry. I most cogently did this last year with “A holiday for every Jew, a holiday for today’s Gaza.” I wrote this one for Jewcy when I was in high school. And I touched on a bit of obscure Talmud Chanukah material here. […]