The Winter Solstice: Chanukah And The Darkest Point Of Light

Everybody but the Maharal of Prague1 knows that the miracle of Chanukah has nothing to do with the winter solstice.  Anthropologists perhaps will say that pagan celebration of the solstice is rooted in the elemental fear of the impending darkness, of a winter of the soul; the Gemara, Avodah Zarah 8a, (for reasons which shall become clear) makes the same connection between that fear and the solstice.  Scientists measure cycles of depression and sadness in reference to light deprivation and the solstice; biologists measure the effects of melatonin cycles in relation to the nadir of light at that time.  But we generally hesitate to associate Chanukah with the context of its season and its physical reality.

And then there is the Maharal.  The Maharal understands Chanukah and its meaning, precisely, in relation to its date, at the darkest point of the year.  The implications of that interpretation would make Chanukah the sum of all these considerations, and more.

The midrash2 says essentially this:  the Mishkan was completed on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev3; (thus, Chanukah meals on this date are a mitzvah4).  The Inauguration of the Mishkan (Chanukat HaBayit) could have been celebrated then on Kislev 25.  Instead, the Holy One, Blessed Be He determined that it be in Nisan.  He said to Kislev, “I must pay you back.”  And it was so, in the days of Chanukah.5

What was the original idea?  Certainly, it cannot imply a Divine change of plan.  What does the midrash mean — that Kislev was owed, and how could it be repaid?

The Maharal decodes the terms of the midrash this way:  One solar quarter, or three months, before Kislev 25 is Elul 25, the day God created the world, the day He created light.  The light receded until the last day of the quarter, Kislev 25, the darkest point of the year.  There was a possibility, a figure of thought, a consideration, though not actually conjectural or speculative, that the Mishkan should be inaugurated on this date, that Man should create light when God’s light had finished.  At the darkest point, Man should respond to God’s creating the world, a home for Man, by creating the Mishkan, a home for God.

What does the midrash mean — that Kislev was owed, and how could it be repaid?

The Maharal implies that although the Mishkan‘s inauguration was deferred to Nisan, the connection to Kislev 25, (Man creating light, responding creatively to God’s Creation), was a legitimate idea in itself.  It would therefore have to be vindicated at some point (i.e. “I must pay you back.”)  And in fact it was, in the time of Chanukah.  And perhaps precisely because the idea had validity, Chanukah perforce would have to be a mitzvah d’rabbanan, a rabbinic mitzvah created by Man, and not by God, because the idea itself was that Man should respond and create on that day.  And in fact, Chanukah was a mitzvah created historically at a time when there was no “light,” no Divine prophecy or inspiration.  (The midrash calls the period of Greek dominion, “the time of darkness.”6)  And Kislev was paid back.

An allusion to Chanukah is found in the twenty-fifth word in the Torah:  “or,”– light (Genesis 1:3).  This “or” was incontrovertibly the light God created in the Six Days of Creation.  The Gemara (Pesachim 54b) says Man himself created fire, later, on Motzei Shabbat, only after Creation was completed.  God gave Adam Divine knowledge (commemorated in the blessing in which we say Havdalah on Motzei Shabbat7: Atah chonen l’adam daat — You give Man knowledge”) to produce fire which existed only in potential8 in Creation.

The creation of Adam’s light was grounded in darkness and fear.  The midrash says that after the first sin9, Adam saw his first sunset; he was alarmed, afraid that the world was blacking out, running down, and that he had caused it to happen.  The cosmic darkness, he thought, not only reflected his own inner darkness, but perhaps resulted from it.  At sunrise, Adam realized it was the way of the world, and that he would have to cope with it and confront the darkness.  After Shabbat, he took two stones and created fire, blessing God, “Blessed are You, who creates the lights of fire.”  We say this blessing on Motzei Shabbat, at the time of the inception of fire10, when we light fire and begin our own creative acts.  In this version, Adam created fire thirty-six hours after his own creation:  after twelve hours of light on Erev Shabbat, twelve hours of dark on Friday night and twelve of light on Shabbat.  In another version11, the first light served Man, shining for the thirty-six hours of Erev Shabbat and Shabbat, before finally becoming night, and then Adam had to learn to contend with darkness.

Avodah Zarah 8b expands this with a version from Avot D’Rabi Natan chapter 1.  Elucidating the source of the Roman Saturnalia and Calends, which engendered the later pagan solstice celebrations, the Gemara tells us this:  As the days passed into winter, Adam noticed in terror that the days were becoming shorter, the hours of light were becoming less.  He thought the world was being destroyed, disintegrating, because of his sin.  He fasted for eight days until the solstice, the darkest point of the descent into darkness.  Then he saw the days brightening, becoming longer, and understood with relief that it was the way of the world.  As the light grew, he made an eight-day festival, and the next year he again celebrated his reprieve12.  His sons eventually forgot the original source of the holiday and used it for pagan celebration.

The Maharal understands Chanukah and its meaning, precisely, in relation to its date, at the darkest point of the year.

 Centuries passed.  The origins of Adam’s festival themselves fell into oblivion and into darkness.  And in the period of the second Beit Hamikdash, the Syrian/Greeks decreed idol worship upon the Jews and were defeated.  We know from The Book of Maccabees II:10, that the Rededication (Chanukat HaBayit) of Chanukah on Kislev 25, was exactly and propitiously three years to the day after the Greeks had forced the Jews to idolatry and rebellion, on the Greek idolatrous holiday on Kislev 25 of 162 BCE.  It is reasonable to suppose that this pagan festival was in fact related, as vestige or precursor, to the Greco-Roman winter solstice celebration13.  Chazal call the period of Greek coercion, “the time of darkness”14, and in the midrash15 they identify it with the substance of the original darkness of the Six Days of Creation, which is to say, the darkness of Adam’s fears.  The decree, in its temporal configuration, thus began on the darkest physical day of what was the historic “time of darkness.”  And Chanukah would be its strict reverse.

The midrash16 notes at the time of his sin, Adam confronted the absence of light after thirty-six hours of light.  In the other versions it was after thirty-six hours of fear, in the face of darkness and its amnesty.

We shall never know if Adam intuited the symmetry of the conjunction between God’s confronting him with “Ayekah?” — “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9):  Alef(1)+Yud(10)+Kof(20)+Heh(5)=36, and his own confrontation of inner and outer darkness after thirty-six hours of darkness and/or light.

We do know with certitude, however, that Man could, and would, at some point — the darkest point — look into the dark and create a holiday of eight days of growing light, as the days grew, incrementally lighting and creating against the darkness, an ascending series of [1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8= 36] thirty-six points of scattered light.

And Kislev was paid back.

Rabbi Levine is a teacher of Jewish studies.


1. Chidushei Aggadot, Shabbat 21b, Ner Mitzvah.

2. Pesikta Rabati.

3. R. Yaakov Emden, in his Mor UKetziah notes that the Heichal of the Second Temple was inaugurated on Kislev 25, based on Chagai 2:18.

4. ReMa, Orach Chaim, I:670, Darkei Moshe, Tur, I:670.

5. See the Ramban to Bamidbar 8:2.

6. Talmud Yerushalmi Chagigah chapter 2, 4, 16:4, 44:18, Vayikra Rabah 13:5, Tanchuma Tazria 11.

7. Berachot 33a.

8. MaHarShA, to Pesachim, 54b.

9. Avodah Zarah 8a, Bereishit Rabah 11:2, 12:2, Talmud Yerushalmi Berachot 8:1, Midrash Tehilim 92, Pesikta Rabati 23, Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer chapter 20.

10. Berachot 34a, Pesachim 54a. Berachot 51a, chapter 11. Pesikta 46,2. The statement in Bereishit Rabah 3:6 (and Berachot 51a, Talmud Yerushalmi Berachot 8:1, Midrash Sochar Tov 47:27): “From where do we know that we may bless on the candle only when we see the light?  From here: ‘And God saw the light and He separated'” [“Vayavdel,” i.e. made Havdalah], underscores the connection between God’s creation of light and Man’s creation of fire on Motzei Shabbat.

11. Bereishit Rabah 11:2, 12:2.

12. Eight descending days of light and eight ascending days of light would parallel the respective directions of the positions of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, Shabbat 21a.

13. Chanukah may also have historical affinities with the solstice in its later observance.  In Shabbat 21, it is noted that “in the time of danger,” it is permissible to light the menorah and place it on the table.  Rashi explains, “that the Persians had a law that on the day of their holiday no one could burn fire except in their house of idolatry.”  Tosafot, Shabbat 45a, MiKamei Chavrei, asks how there would be a holiday just at Chanukah time?  It is plausible that there might be a Persian holiday, involving lighting fire, at the time of the winter solstice. (See Shabbat 45a, Gittin 17b, Soferim 20:5.)

14. Talmud Yerushalmi Chagigah chapter 2, 4, 16:4, 44:18, Vayikra Rabah 13:5, Tanchuma Tazria 11.

15. Ibid.

16. Avodah Zarah 8a, Bereishit Rabah 11:2, 12:2.

This article was featured in the Winter 2014 issue of Jewish Action.
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