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.

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