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Light in the Darkness? Hanukkah and its Possible Pagan Origins

| 04/12/2017

“Banu Hoshech l’Garesh” – We have come to banish the darkness. This is the beginning of the popular Israeli Hanukah song. At Kindergarten Hanukah parties, the lights are dimmed, the children hold candles, triumphantly stamp their feet and parents become googly-eyed. It’s clear to everyone that the candle theme at this time of year is to recollect, recall and even reenact the miracle of a small flask that contained enough oil to burn for one day, yet burned for eight.

But is it? What are the cultural-evolutionary origins of our Holiday of Lights? To be sure, the rabbis of the Talmud tell us in Tractate Shabbat 21a that the miracle of Hanukkah is what we teach our children, and perhaps why we eat latkes and jelly doughnuts, all laden with (way too much) oil. However other accounts of the story, including one other rabbinic source – the Al Ha’Nissim paragraph added to the Amida and Birkat Hamazon during the holiday – make no mention of this miracle. Indeed, the Book of the Maccabees, an apocryphal book from the 2nd century CE, about the same time as the Mishna and the historian/philosopher Josephus,  make no mention of this miracle. These sources refer to the great military victory of the few Hasmoneans over the mighty and numerous Greeks. The culmination was the purification/rededication of the temple that took place on 25 Kislev.

So, is there another way to understand the origins of Hanukkah? To answer this, we must look at the cultural and religious surroundings of the Jews of the time. In addition, we must take into account certain evolutionary and biological tendencies. If we look back even 150 years we can see that humans feared darkness. Indeed, most diurnal animals have an instinctual tendency to avoid darkness. This can help explain why, at least in the northern hemisphere, there are more holidays between the months of October and March than any other time of the year. And many of them have lights as a major theme. Just as an aside, consider the oddity of lighting lights during the months of December in Australia, South Africa and South America. The power of religious culture necessitates the unity of practice, but we can imagine that if the Torah had its origins, or had the rabbis of the Talmud lived south of the equator, our Jewish holidays would be celebrated in different months.

Many of the holidays during this time of years have their origins in pagan based holidays. Pagan holidays evolve from the bottom up. There is a very human need to celebrate and to mark occasions and to do so together. In addition, fear of the dark is best averted with light and company. Leaving a night-light on is not always enough for some. Rather, to the dismay of many parents, it’s also the fact of being nearby someone that helps many toddlers sleep. So, the need to light lights and come together is a human instinct that evolved millennia ago separate and apart from any of the major religions’ holidays that are celebrated today.

Did the rabbis know of this fear and were they aware of other holidays? Two rabbinic sources that were contemporarneous with, but not included in, the Mishna, help answer these questions. In Avot of Rabbi Natan the rabbis relate a story of Adam noticing that the day was turning into night. Adam grows fearful and assumes it is because he had done something wrong and the world was returning to darkness. When the sun rose the next day, Adam celebrated and offered thanks to God, realizing that this is the way of the world.

In an apparent adaptation of this, Tractate Avoda Zara (Strange or Idol Worship) relates that during the period leading up to the autumnal equinox: “When Adam saw the day growing gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world’s course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but they [the heathens] appointed them for the sake of .”

The Mishna in Avoda Zara (1:3) tells of the non-Jews’ holidays. “And these, according to Rabbi Meir, are the festivals of the non-Jews: Kalendae, Saturnalia, Kratesim, kings’ days of accession, the day of birth, and the day of death. Immediately following that Mishna, the Talmud teaches us that R. Hanan b. Raba [said]: KALENDA is kept on the eight days following the [winter] solstice. SATURNALIA on the eight days preceding the solstice.” (BT Avoda Zara ).

The rabbis were aware of these holidays and certainly had an understanding of the human condition and the need to celebrate together and dispel the darkness. They were charged with taking a cultic Temple based practice and turning it into a modern religion for its time. They knew of the Book of Maccabees date for the rededication/purification of the temple. So perhaps taking these things together, the rabbis adapted the holidays of lights and made a Jewish holiday, thereby filling the Jews’, like others’, need to celebrate expelling darkness in a uniquely Jewish way.

Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox is a lecturer in Family and Community Studies. His research interests include Judaism in Evolutionary perspective, the evolution of altruism and the interface between science & religion.

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