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Nature and Jewish Religion: Thoughts for Hanukkah

Most biblically ordained Jewish festivals have a double significance: they have one meaning associated with nature and another meaning associated with Israelite history. The Sabbath commemorates creation, but it is also called zekher litisiat mitsrayim , a commemoration of the Exodus. Passover is the festival of spring and the festival of Israelite freedom; Shavuot is both a harvest festival and the day on which the Torah was given; Sukkot celebrates the ingathering of produce as well as being a reminder for all generations “that I caused the Israelites to dwell in booths  when I took them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43).

Hanukkah, too, has a meaning associated with nature, in addition to its historical importance as the festival of the Maccabees. The ritual of candle lighting on Hanukkah seems to originally have marked the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Candle lighting is not mentioned as part of the Hanukkah observances in the days of the Maccabees themselves, and the connection between Hanukkah and kindling is first documented over 100 years after the Hasmonean victory. There is reason to believe that this element was added to the Hanukkah celebration in the days of King Herod, shortly after Julius Caesar introduced the Julian solar calendar throughout the Roman Empire in 46 BCE. In the wake of the adoption of this calendar, many peoples began celebrating the winter solstice as the “birthday of the Sun”, since it marks the beginning of the period in which the daylight hours begin to lengthen. The Roman Saturnalia (17 December), for example, originally an agricultural festival, evolved into a solstice festival during the first century BCE; at that point two new rituals were introduced into the observance of the festival: the lighting of candles on the altar of Saturn in Rome, and giving gifts of wax candles. A Talmudic legend, aware of this significance of the Roman festival, credits Adam with founding the Saturnalia in thanks to God for the lengthening days. Although the Jews never adopted the Julian calendar, it seems that they, too, began to celebrate Hanukkah by lighting an increasing number of candles in celebration of the change in nature that occurs around Hanukkah time each year: the lengthening of the daylight hours. Only later were the Hanukkah candles accorded a historical significance connected to the Maccabees, in the form of the miracle of the oil (see Moshe Benovitz, “Herod and Hanukkah” [Hebrew], Zion 68 (2003), pp. 5-40).

There is no doubt that in the collective consciousness of the Jewish people it is the historical significance of the festivals that is paramount. Rituals and customs directly connected with the individual’s experiences as a creature living in nature tend to make contemporary Jews – and most Jews throughout history – uncomfortable. In the case of Hanukkah it would seem that the original, natural significance of the candles was deliberately replaced in the Jewish consciousness by an explanation of the ritual connecting it with Jewish history and peoplehood – the supernatural miracle of the oil that marked the renewal of worship in the Temple and Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.

One reason for this preference for history over nature is that nature and Jewish religion are perceived as opposites: religion that celebrates nature and celebrates with nature is considered pagan. The Torah’s way of life is supposed to enable us to transcend nature – to move us away from the environment in which our bodies function, toward the transcendental, supernatural realm of the spiritual. Unlike the pagan gods, who symbolize the forces of nature, our God stands above nature; his Torah and his commandments are designed, in the view of many Jews, to lift us out of our natural subsistence into eternal life.

However, the history of the Israelite festivals in general, and Hanukkah in particular, indicates that this dichotomy between the spiritual and the natural has not always been the Jewish conception. Alongside the supernatural miracle of the Exodus celebrated on Passover, we find reference to the springtime – an annual, cyclical, natural phenomenon. Both the Exodus and the springtime are celebrated as examples of renewal through divine Providence. On Sukkot, alongside references to the shelter provided by God for the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness, a magical world of manna and protective clouds and clothing that never wears out, we find gratitude for the bounty of the yield of the field, which is equally a miraculous gift of God. Alongside His revelation at Mount Sinai, God’s power is revealed each year at Shavuot time in the harvest, and the book of Ruth shows how God avails himself of the harvest, and the daily life that goes on in its shadow, in order to bring about his will in the world of interpersonal relations as well. And alongside the miracle of the oil celebrated on Hanukkah, which allowed for the wondrous continuity of the light kindled for the glory of God in the Temple, God’s glory is revealed to this day in the continuity of the patterns of natural sunlight, renewed annually in the solar cycle.

While the appreciation for God’s role in history which Jews have demonstrated throughout the generations is certainly commendable, the time may be ripe for reasserting the centrality of nature as an expression of God’s power and will. Our generation might want to think about emphasizing the role of the commandments in affirming and praising God’s power as it is revealed in nature, rather than their role in enabling us to transcend nature, for the following reasons:

1 – Contemporary circumstances have certainly not alleviated our need to derive encouragement from the unique historical consciousness of the Jewish people and “the kindness of the Lord that has not ended and his mercies that are not spent” (Lamentations 3:22); if anything, the circumstances, difficulties and challenges that Jews and the state of Israel face today have made this need greater than ever. But when we stress the supernatural and miraculous elements in Jewish history – as we do when we tell the story of the miracle of the oil on Hanukkah and the narratives relating to other holidays – we distract ourselves from the need to face up to the sober realities of our international and interethnic relations, and our existence as a modern state and people.

2 – When we emphasize the miracles that God performed for us as a nation, we ignore the relationship between the individual and God as experienced in daily life. Once, when life in nature was taken for granted, this relationship came naturally: people thanked God for the arrival of spring, prayed for a successful harvest, and were filled with gratitude at the ingathering of produce. In those days, halakhah and the festivals were seen as opportunities to strengthen elements of Jewish religion that were less obvious, such as the historical consciousness of the Jewish people and the possibility of transcending nature. In our technological age, however, man is alienated from nature; abstraction reigns while our physical environment deteriorates. In this day and age, it is the religious conception of nature that needs strengthening.

3 – Emphasizing what we have in common with all humanity and all creatures with whom, by God’s grace, we share our environment, and seeing the Creator as the guiding force behind nature and the world as we know it, can help create harmony between Jews and other believers and all of creation, so that “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).

With this in mind, perhaps it would be appropriate to reintegrate the original meaning of the Hanukkah lights into our collective consciousness. The ceremony in which we kindle an increasing number of lights each day at the beginning of winter is an opportunity to reflect upon the kindness of the Creator as reflected in the annual cycle of the sun, whose effect on earth is felt increasingly each day as the days get longer. The lengthening of the daylight hours is no less relevant to our lives than the increase in the amount of oil in the Menorah in the days of the Maccabees. It is a miracle that we experience personally, year after year, and it is not the kind of miracle that can distract us from reality. It is a miracle that we share with all mankind and all of creation.

Experiencing the power of the sun as an expression of divine grace is not at all alien to Jewish religion, as the following passage in the Psalms attests: “The heavens tell of the glory of God . In them He placed a tent for the sun, who is like a groom coming forth from the chamber, like a hero, eager to run his course. Starting at one end of the heavens, his course takes him to the other; nothing escapes his heat” (Psalm 19:2-7). The rabbis instituted a blessing each morning and evening praising God, “who, in his kindness, renews creation daily,” for the daily cycle of the sun, but contemporary Jews still seem reluctant to give full religious expression to their relationship with nature in general, and the sun in particular. May the day come when we once again truly worship God as the “Creator of light and Maker of darkness, Conceiver of peace and Maker of all”.

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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