December 8, 2012: Hanukkah and the Calendar (Vayeshev)

At this time of year, we are experiencing the deprivation of sunlight as the days reach their shortest duration. People have well-documented physiological and psychological responses to the dearth of light. It’s even given a name in the psychiatric community: SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. I myself am very sensitive to light. When I was looking for a ho use to live in, it had to have southern exposure. One of the added delights for me, believe it or not, in moving to Bloomington, is that we live at the western edge of the Time Zone, so even now, even in the dead of winter, the sun set is not before 5 PM. I was reminded of this felicity when I returned to Vermont last weekend, and it was already dark by 4 PM. It makes a big difference.

Almost all Jewish holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, or Pesach, are linked to the phases of the moon. Hanukkah is one of the few holidays not linked to the lunar calendar, because it commemorates an actual historical event. The first night of Hanukkah marks the date, as recorded in the Book of Maccabees, when the Temple was rededicated after its profanation by King Antiochus IV. That event occurred on 25th of Kislev. (By the way, do you know the historical reason why Hanukkah is 8 days long? Yes, there’s the story of the cruze of oil, that was supposed to last only one day, but miraculously remained lit for eight. But it’s fairly certain that the legendary support grew up centuries later to provide a spiritual account for the preexisting celebration. The reason why Hanukkah is 8 days long was that the dedication of the Second Temple was supposed to coincide with Sukkot, as it had occurred when the First Temple had been dedicated in the days of King Solomon.) But just as the spiritual etiology of the length of Hanukkah overshadows the historical basis, I would like to highllight the timing of Hanukkah within the calendar year not as a product of history but as an ingenious and perhaps deliberate alignment of symbolic import. There’s something magical about the way Hanukkah interact with the calendar as determined by astronomical processes in the natural world.

Here are some astronomical observations related to Hanukkah. First, regarding the lunar cycle: on the eve of the 25th of Kislev (December 7 this year), the old moon hangs in the eastern sky just before dawn. The moon shrinks as Hanukkah progresses and vanishes entirely on the sixth night. Rosh Chodesh Tevet always arrives on the 6th night of the Festival, so that for the festival’s final two evenings, the new moon reappears in the west as a thin crescent at sunset. It will continue to wax until reaching its full glory on the 15th day of the month, this year, December 27.

Second astronomical fact: regarding the solar cycle: the thing to note here is that the festival of Hanukkah is always coordinated with the winter solstice. This year Hanukkah is very early, but even when it falls late, the timing of the festival is calibrated to always fall before the winter solstice, and so that the first subsequent full moon always falls after the winter solstice.

I believe that Hanukkah’s placement within the calendar is more than a historical coincidence. The Hanukkah menorah counteracts the darkness of the season, a function common to the lights of Christmas, as well as pagan festivals, such as the Roman Saturnalia. Distinctively, however, on each successive evening, we light one more candle, so that the increasing luminosity of the Menorah counteracts the diminishing light of the waning moon. Something especially magical takes place when we cross the threshold of the new moon on the sixth night—because the moon itself reappears, and from that point on, the increasing intensity of the moon and the menorah begin to reinforce each other. The festival itself ceases—this year, on December 16—but by that point, the moon is bright enough to pick up and shine on its own where the menorah leaves off. When the moon itself reaches its zenith, the light of the sun takes up where the light of the moon leaves off. Thus, the moon replaces the menorah, and the sun replaces the moon, in a continuous crescendo of light that really does not reach its peak until the first day of summer.

In times of darkness, whether it be seasonal affective disorder or any time of despair, let us light a candle against the gloom, knowing that we only have to keep it lit a short while before light from above overflows our meager efforts. The Kabbalah distinguishes between two processes of redemption: the redemption that we initiate ourselves through our own efforts, called by the Zohar itaruta diletata, “arousal from below,” and the redemption that God initiates, called itaruta dile’eila, or “arousal from above.” All of the saving divine acts of the Torah—the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the sea, the manna from heaven—are all examples of the second type, liberation from above, God coming down from Heaven and changing the course of human affairs. But the liberation depicted by the story of Hanukkah is of a different order: a band of patriots, the Maccabees, zealously loyal to their faith and their tradition, rising up against their oppressors, and prevailing not through divine intercession, but through the strength of their own determination. That is the real miracle of Hanukkah, much more than the cruze of oil. Henceforth, miracles will no longer arise in the world as spectacular supernatural violations of the laws of science. Henceforth, miracles will function within the ordinary world, according to the lunar and solar cycles and all the other regularities of the natural order, and God is to operate in the world, then God must operate through us. For me, the ultimate spiritual lesson of Hanukkah, symbolized by the intricate manner in which the human light of the menorah is designed to interplay with the divine light of the natural world, is the faith and trust that if we take the first step toward repair, toward liberation, toward redemption, then help from outside ourselves will inevitably arrive to carry us through the rest of the way.