The Once and Future Festival

  • Rav Asher Meir

I. The Mystery of the Missing Festival

All of the festivals mentioned in the Torah have a "tri- partite" character: they have historical, agricultural, and Temple-ritual aspects. For instance, Pesach is simultaneously the commemoration of the Exodus, the time of the bringing of the Omer to mark the beginning of the grain harvest, and the time of the bringing of the Paschal lamb in the Temple.

Purim, the Rabbinic holiday described in the Book of Esther, lacks this multifaceted nature. It was instituted at the initiative of the Jewish people in commemoration of a particular historical event, the rescue of the Jews of Persia from Haman's wicked machinations, but its celebration does not have any agricultural or Temple-ritual connection.

Chanuka, like Purim, is the commemoration of a historical event, one which is not even mentioned in our sacred writings. Yet even though Chanuka could be seen as a purely commemorative holiday, our Sages seem to have done everything possible to bolster its status by giving it agricultural and ritual significance.

One example from the agricultural realm is that bikkurim - the first fruits - can be brought until Chanuka. Chanuka thus marks the official end of the fruit harvest, and this is inferred in the Sifri from the precise text of the first-fruit declamation quoted in the Torah!

Since bikkurim are brought to the Temple altar, this particular agricultural rule carries with it a Temple-ritual significance. Additionally, Chanuka - literally "inauguration" of the Temple - is suffused with symbolism connected to the holy Temple, such as the Chanuka menora which memorializes the menora which stood in the Temple sanctuary.

The effort to make Chanuka into a quasi-festival is most understandable. There seems to be a festival "missing" right around Chanuka time. The Torah endows every "tekufa" (solstice or equinox) with a festival - except that of the winter solstice! Pesach marks the beginning of the vegetable and grain harvest, and Sukkot its end; Shavuot marks beginning of the fruit harvest, but where is its conclusion? It is not surprising that more than one Jewish studies researcher has had a hunch that Chanuka predates the Maccabees' victory and rededication of the altar.

II. As Old As Creation

A midrash seems to suggest that Chanuka's standing as a holiday is as old as the human race, on the same footing as the other, Torah-prescribed, pilgrimages.

"R. Eliezer says, the world was created in Tishri; R. Yehoshua says, the world was created in Nisan. According to the one who says the creation was in Tishri, Abel lived from Sukkot until Chanuka; according to the one who says the creation was in Nisan, Abel lived from Pesach until Shavuot."

The midrash refers to the verse which states that the altercation between Kain and Abel took place "miketz yamim" - "at the end of some days" (Bereshit 4:3). The root "ketz" or "katzeh" - "end" is understood in several places in the midrash to indicate a festival - as opposed to Chanuka (for example, Sifri on Devarim 14:28). Yet, here, it is specifically used to include Chanuka! This is a further hint as to the ambiguity of Chanuka's status.

III. Waking Up Just in Time

If Chanuka has such an ancient heritage, why did the other three holidays become part of the Written Torah, and Chanuka only part of the Oral Torah, after a wait of about a thousand years?

Before Rosh Ha-Shana we gave a conceptual explanation of the positions of R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua regarding the date of the world's creation: R. Eliezer says the world - and man - were created at the twilight of the year; as man's light shines, his surroundings darken, symbolizing man's existential state as one of conflict against nature, until the time of the redemption. R. Yehoshua says man was created in Nisan, the dawn of the year; man blossoms and develops in harmony with his surroundings.

Everyone must agree that the winter solstice is the low point of the year. It is true that autumn is a time of decline, but some good days remain - there are final fruits to be harvested, and some warm days of Indian summer. The onset of winter is the end - no more fruit left to harvest, and the shortest and coldest days arrive. All one can do is hunker down with the resources that have already been gathered and wait for better days to come.

The spring of Jewish history is undoubtedly the national birth at Pesach, which always falls in the spring. What period in Jewish history is evoked by Kislev's solstice? The "winter" of our national history certainly dates from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple: no more sovereignty, no more Temple worship, no more centralized Torah authority.

The same period also marks the ethical nadir of our national life. Our Sages inform us that the destruction of the Second Temple was due to baseless hatred within the Jewish people. It may well be that the attribution of the fratricide of Abel by Cain to the beginning of the winter hints at the fratricidal behavior at the beginning of the cold, dark winter of our collective national life.

Many Jews must have questioned whether our depleted spiritual resources were sufficient to survive as a united people through a prolonged exile - something that no other nation has managed even to this day.

The miracle of Chanuka was that the one remaining cruse of oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol burned for eight days - enough time to press more ritually pure oil. The message is that even a tiny bit of holiness, if its sanctity is carefully guarded, can miraculously sustain our service of God until all of the material infrastructure that is normally required can be assembled. This is exactly the message that was needed for the generation which witnessed the unprecedented disintegration of our national institutions at the beginning of the current exile and diaspora.

Not only the need for a festival was immanent in the period of the winter solstice, the message of such a festival was also embedded in its chronological placement. This time of year is fitting for a festival which will sustain the people through a prolonged period of isolation and desolation. During the time of our collective national life in the land of Israel, and even during the Babylonian exile which was not a dispersion and which was limited in duration, there was no need for such a holiday.

However, on the historical eve of our national winter, the holiday of Chanuka was established "just in time" - the Holy One, blessed be He, kept it in store until His people were in need of it. They could face the desolation of exile with the confidence that the seemingly meager spiritual resources that they had managed to save from the ravages of external persecution and internal strife would miraculously be able to sustain the light of the Jewish people - a light unto the nations - until the full renewal of our national and religious life.



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