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Ḥanukah: Sukkot Sheni and the Brumalia

With the dissemination and availability of 2 Maccabees (preserved in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian cannons), more Jews are learning that the eight day festival of lights originated as a renewal of the eight day festival of Sukkot.  That essential Fall pilgrimage and fertility festival (which included the joyous water-drawing festival, Simchat Bet haShoeva) was missed due to the Temple desecration and ensuing revolt. The relationship between Sukkot and Chanukah is explained in 2Maccabees chapter 10 verses 5-8. Here is the translation from the original Greek as found in the The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha (Augmented Third Edition):

It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the Festival of Booths [Sukkot], remembering how not long before, during the Festival of Booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm [lulavim], they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days each year.

It can be difficult to imagine how important the pilgrimage holidays were in the Temple eras. Not only did they fulfill the important social function for reuniting families and clans, opportunities for the young to meet and fall in love (or for the arrangement of marriages), they also expressed the real anxieties Jews shared for a good harvest and a sufficient rainy season. The passion of the Sukkot fertility rituals and the joy expressed at the Simchat beit hashoeva (Water Drawing festival) cannot be exaggerated. The Mishnah in Middoth 2:5 exclaims “He who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never in his life seen true rejoicing.” The loss of the Sukkot pilgrimage due to fighting must have been so difficult that the victory inspired a religious innovation: recelebrating a Sukkot, albeit with light! The important bull sacrifices in the Temple on Sukkot that were missed could symbolically be commemorated by offerings of light by all of Israel. (This also helps to explain the symbolism of Beit Shammai’s alternative Chanukah lighting tradition. See below.)

Given that a pagan ritual defiled the Temple on that same winter day (the 25th of Kislev), what can we know about it? Chapter 6 of Maccabees 2 describes a series of defilements including the Temple’s consecration to Zeus and a festival to Dionysus (2 Macabees 6:7). Could this have been the Brumalia, a month long holiday held in honor of Bacchus/Dionysus ending on the winter solstice? (Brumalia is derived from the Latin bruma, or “shortest day.”) The holiday was known for its wine mixing and revelry. Perhaps there was some Dionysian mystery cult that also lit candles on the solstice, but the ritual lighting of sacred candles on Chanukah, signifying an increase of light both above (with the solstice) and below (with the Temple’s re-sanctification) seems a more relevant celebration of the bruma.

The Talmudic legend in Tractate Shabbat 21b — that undefiled oil found in the Temple, only enough for one day nevertheless lasted for eight — is not found in either Maccabees 1 or 2. Nor is the connection to Sukkot made obvious in the Talmud. In his distinctive poetic form, Beit Midrash shel Melkh Goblin elucidates the connection between the Talmud and Macabees in his latest (brilliant) d’var torah.” (Check this link for the full drash.) [My translations and transliterations are in brackets.]

In the Babylonian Talmud
in מסכת שבת [Masechet Shabbat, Tractate Shabbat of the Talmud, 21b]
our Sages explain
the holiday of חנוכה
with the story
of the miraculous jug of pure oil
that lasted for eight days
when it should have only lasted
for one.

When the Maccabees
liberated the בית המקדש,
they found the Temple
stained
with spiritual darkness
and impurity.
Everything had been desecrated.
And then,
in the midst
of that thick dark cloud
of impurity and despair,
they found that first small jug of oil —
the first glimmering hint
of holy light.

But we find another explanation —
another layer of significance —
to the eight days of illumination
in the Books of the Maccabees,
which describe the first חנוכה
as a late סוכות,
celebrated by the victorious Jewish warrior-priests
in commemoration
of the סוכות they were unable to observe
when they were busy fighting
for the survival of Judaism
against the Seleucid Empire.

This other layer
of the Festival of Lights
is corroborated
by hints in the על הנסים prayer
and by the opinion of בית שמאי in the גמרא —
who taught
that like the bull sacrifices
of סוכות,
we should count down in candles
for the eight days
of the חנוכה holiday.

Just as the number of sacrifices
decreased each day of סוכות
from 13 to 12 to 11 and so on,
according to בית שמאי
we should kindle the חנוכה lights
8 on the first night
and 7 on the second
6 on the third
and so on,
all the way down
to one.

However
we don’t rule
according to בית שמאי.

Instead,
following the opinion of בית הלל,
we start
at one candle the first night;
on the second night, two;
on the third night, three —
and slowly,
day by day,
work our way up
to eight.
As בית הלל put it, going up in holiness.

We increase light
we increase holiness
and we increase hope.

In מסכת עבודה־זרה [Tractate Avodah Zara of the Talmud, page 8a]
we are told a story
about אדם הראשון.

After he was kicked out of Eden,
Adam noticed
that the days
were getting shorter.
Every 24 hours
the amount of daylight decreased
and the amount of darkness grew.

אדם fasted and prayed
for eight days,
terrified
that it was all his fault —
that because of his sin inside the Garden,
the light of creation
was dwindling away
to nothing,
and the world was returning
to empty chaos.

And then
תקופת טבת came —
the winter solstice —
and אדם saw
that the days
were once again
growing in length.

When he realized
that light
was returning to the world —
that the universe
was not dissolving
back into the primordial darkness —
that what he was so frightened of
was nothing but a natural cycle,
instituted by God —
אדם celebrated
for another eight days,
from the solstice onwards.

אדם celebrated תקופת טבת
for eight days
as hope returned to his dreams
and light returned to the world.

Whatever victory the Maccabees had wrought from Antiochus in 164BCE, the following hundred years of Hasmonean rule described a painful progression from despotism and corruption, to masscares and civil war, and finally to Roman rule over Hasmonean puppet governments. Disturbed by this history, both the midrash cited in Tractate Avodah Zara and the decision to follow the candle lighting tradition of Beit Hillel represent a rabbinic tradition in late antiquity that clearly emphasized Chanukah as a celebration of light. The relationships that connected the Maccabean victory with Sukkot became obscure — but not lost. Through Chanukah, the renewed light of the sun on the winter solstice becomes identified with the renewal of the light of the menorah in the Temple, and as on Sukkot, for the shining light of peace to spread over the entire earth. (This last apocryphal vision is related to the luminous skin of the leviatan and the primordial light reserved for the righteous at the end of time, myths discussed elsewhere on this blog.)

Significantly, the tradition of Beit Shammai is relegated to the manner in which Judaism imagines the candles lit in the messianic age. Until then, Jews follow the tradition of Hillel: increases light each day below in anticipation of the increase in light above, a beautiful example of magical reciprocity. But in the messianic age, when the primordial light will be revealed, Hillel’s tradition will no longer be necessary. (Perhaps the decrease in light will signify the approaching end of the messianic age and the coming of the mysterious and unimaginable Olam Haba, the world-to-come (aka, the next epoch of creation).

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon’s Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

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