Hanukkah: Turning the Blazing Fire into an Illuminating Flame, by Rabbi Riccardo Shmuel Di Segni


It is well known that, despite the importance of Hanukkah, there are only few pages in all the Bavli devoted to this holiday, mainly in Massekhet Shabbat (21-24). The most common explanation is that at its origin Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Hasmonean family, priests who illegally became kings and persecuted the Pharisees.

However, other explanations are possible, and one of them is actually hidden in another page of Talmud where the name of Hanukkah is not even mentioned. In Massekhet Avoda Zara (8a) the names of some pagan holidays are quoted, among them Saturnalia and Kalenda. The Talmud explains that the former occurs eight days before the winter solstice, the latter eight days after. The Talmud then tells the story of the first man, Adam, who saw that the length of the day light was progressively shortening, and was afraid that the sun light will disappear as a punishment for his sin, until he discovered that at a certain point the length of the day was again widening; he therefore established those days as holidays for thanking God, but the generations after him turned this celebration into a pagan cult. The Talmud quotes Saturnalia, but already in those times a similar celebration connected with the sun was widespread, the Dies natalis soli invicti, the birthday of the undefeated sun, next to become one of the sources of the future Christmas. In that Talmudic page, the never said link to Hanukkah, feast of the light(s), is that this is exactly the same period of the year with the same length (eight days). And there could be there also other allusions, as to the known controversy between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel on the way of kindling the lights in decreasing order (8 to 1) or increasing.

There are two basic teachings from that page: Hanukkah is the oldest festival of the mankind, and it is a very dangerous festival. So, we understand the late appearance of Hanukkah in our list of holidays, the reticence of the sources and the systematic change of symbols and meanings. It was all to prevent any possible pagan deviation, an everlasting risk. The natural celebration of the solar cycle became feast of artificial light; the agricultural feast of olive harvest at that moment of the season was cancelled, but the core of miracle story and way of celebration is the olive oil.

The cyclicity of the natural year and the regularity of the natural laws, pillars of the Greek world, are contradicted by the story of the miracle. The lights must burn ‘ad shetikhle regel min hashuq, until the regel, literally “leg” and “walking”, will stop from the streets. But the word regel (as in the story of the pagan who wanted from Shammai and Hillel to know all the Judaism al regel ahat, on one regel) could be related in these cases to the Latin word regula, rule. According to the Greeks we must honor the regulated order of the universe. Hanukkah is the symbol of another way of thinking, a dimension beyond the rule, the miracle’s dimension. The lights of Hanukkah must burn “until the ideology of rule will stop”. Hanukkah is the celebration of the survival of the spirit, the miracle of survival, the survival of the miracle.

In witnessing this are we totally free? One of the rare (seven!) quotations of Hanukkah in the Mishnah is the law on the responsibility of a shopkeeper who lit its Hanukkah lamp outside his shop in a narrow street (Baba Qama 1:6). A camel loaded with linen passes in the street, the linen touches the lamp, there is a fire and there are damages. Who pays? The shopkeeper could say that he was obeying a religious duty and the camel driver must be careful. The camel driver could say that regardless the storekeeper should check an open fire in the public street. The halakhah (Hoshen Mishpat 418:12) says that the shopkeeper must pay.

The moral conclusion? our religious duty is to bring light to the world with our mitzvot, we are not allowed to burn the world. There is our duty to transform the Ur—fire–into and Or, light. Hag haorot (or orim, cf. Tehillim 136:7) sameah!

Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni is the chief rabbi of Rome. A specialist in diagnostic radiology, he is descended from three generations of rabbis. He completed his rabbinical studies in 1973 and was elected chief rabbi of Rome in 2001.

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