Class 11: Chanukah

In this class, we will explore the holiday of Chanukah, its connection to the seasons, and its relationship with traditions about women.

introduction: Chanukah

Chanukah, is a festival marking the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem at the end of a war between Jews who wished to keep their customs and Syrian Greeks (and the Jews who supported Hellenization). Chanukah comes at the dark of the moon closest to the solstice and ends with the new moon, symbolizing the return to light after the darkened days of autumn. Chanukah is also connected to the planting cycle. It comes at the conclusion of the olive harvest in Israel, and represents the olive tree’s contribution to civilization: olive oil for heat and light.

Chanukah falls at the darkest time of the year, close to the winter solstice, and begins at the dark of the moon. During these long nights, we kindle one light, then two, then many. Through these acts, we symbolize not only the radiance of faith, but the return of daylight. Once the winter solstice passes, the light of the days will grow, just as the lights of the Chanukah menorah grow from one day to the next. Chanukah is the Jewish celebration of the passing of midwinter and the first, distant, glimmers of spring.

Jewish legends further connect Chanukah to the winter solstice. Consider the traditional Chanukah story of the Talmud. When the Jews enter the Temple to dedicate it after it has been defiled by the Greeks, they find a single cruse of sacred oil, and use it to relight the eternal lamp. This oil miraculously lasts eight days, long enough for more oil to be prepared (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b). If we read this story symbolically, we can imagine that the cruse of oil is the sun. It has been diminished during the long nights of winter. Yet miraculously, it begins to grow again, filling the seasons with its radiance. The sun is the rekindled eternal light, and this becomes even more clear when we note that the “helper” candle of the Chanukah menorah is called the “shamash,” which can mean “sun.” Our Chanukah story is a metaphor for the cycle of the seasons.

In another Talmud story, Adam and Eve are approaching their first winter solstice. The light of the days grows shorter and shorter, and the first humans are terrified. They believe God is punishing them for sinning in the Garden of Eden by destroying the world. They spend eight days fasting and praying. Then, on the winter solstice, the light of the sun begins to grow again. “This is the way of the world!” Adam exclaims, and realizes that the light of the sun will wax and wane each year. Adam and Eve observe eight days of joy and feasting to celebrate the return of the sun’s light (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a). The Talmud uses this story to explain the Roman festival of Saturnalia (which later grew into the Christmas celebration), but it could just as easily be a story of the origins of Chanukah.

Finally, consider this Chanukah legend from the Book of Maccabees. Chanukah is established in the winter partly because, during the civil war, the Jews have been unable to celebrate the autumn harvest festivals and need to schedule a “catch-up” holiday. Yet the Book of Maccabees also claims that Chanukah falls at the dark of the moon in the month of Kislev because that is when the altar of the Second Temple was dedicated. The Book of Maccabees relates an ancient tale: when the Jews left Jerusalem and were exiled to Babylon, they hid the sacred flame of the Temple altar in a cistern. Generations later, they returned, and their leader Nehemiah sent the priests to retrieve the sacred fire, but it had gone out. Nothing was left but muddy water. Nehemiah ordered the muddy water thrown on the altar. As the priests did so, the sun, passing overhead, struck the water that was poured on the new Temple altar, and it burst into flame (I Maccabees 1:19-22). This story too connects the renewal of the hearthfire of the people—the Temple— with the renewal of the hearthfire of the earth—the sun, which in winter begins to dawn earlier and earlier so that the days are blessed by its fire.

Like all peoples, Jews are glad to see the light of the days begin to grow and the life within plants and animals begin to revive. The sun, exactly the right distance from our little planet, is one of the great blessings of Creation, and indeed, traditional Jews praise the Divine Presence for the sun’s light each morning, naming the Holy One “Creator of Light.” It’s not an accident that Chanukah and Christmas fall close to one another on the calendar. It’s not even a nuisance. Chanukah and Christmas fall near one another because this is the season when humans are celebrating the blessing of light. The sun warms us, feeds plants, provides energy, and makes life on earth possible. May this Chanukah bring us renewed appreciation for the sun and its sacred gift of life.

Lecture: Chanukah

Candelighting Blessings and Song

Blessing 1 and 2, feminine

B’rucha at shekhinah eloteinu ruach ha’olam asher kid’shatnu b’mitzvoteha v’tzivatnu lehadlik ner shel chanukah.

B’rucha at shekhinah eloteinu ruach ha’olam she’asta nisim le’imoteinu va’avoteinu bayamim haheim u’vazman hazeh.

lessing 1 and 2, masculine

Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Spirit of the Universe, who has commanded us to kindle the lights of Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Spirit of the Universe, who has done miracles for our mothers and fathers in ancient days and in modern times.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Spirit of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.

First night

Nevarech et ein hachayim shehecheyanu vekiymanu vehigianu lazman hazeh.

et us bless the Source of Life that has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.

Maoz Tzur

Maoz tzur yeshuati Lecha naeh leshabeach

Tikon beit tefilati Vesham todah nizabeiach

Le’eit tachin matbeach Mitzar hamnabeach

Az egmor beshir mizmor Chanukat hamizbeach (2x)

Interpretive English

Ancient One, now let our song
Praise your wheel that is spinning
You weave sunlight out of night
And out of winter, the spring.
When in dark we’re yearning,
stars will still be burning
and the sun will return
to the earth in her turning,
and the sun will return to the earth in her turning.
O Shekhinah, light the earth.
May it prosper in growing.
May the shining water
Never cease in its flowing.
May the winds keep blowing.
May the sun keep glowing.
May the circle of life on earth
Keep on going and going.
May the circle of life on earth keep on going and going.

 

Texts on the Origin of Chanukah

What is Chanukah? ... When the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over [the Greeks], they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil... enough to light the menorah for a single day.A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days.On the following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving to G-d. (Talmud, Shabbat 21b)

Since we are about to celebrate the purification of the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, we think it necessary to inform you [the Jews of the diaspora] so you too may observe this delayed Sukkot festival—also the festival of the kindling of the fire..” ( II Maccabees 1:18-19)

It is also the festival of the kindling of the fire... For when our ancestors were being taken [into exile], the pious priests of that day took some of the fire on the altar and hid it safely in the hollow of an empty cistern, so that the place remained unknown to anyone. Many years later…Nehemiah was appointed by the king of Persia, and sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to get it. ..They could not find any fire but only muddy water. He ordered them to draw some water and bring it with them. When the offerings to be sacrificed had been put in place, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle the water on the wood and on the offerings that were laid upon it. …The sun, which had been clouded over, came out and shone on it, and a great blaze was kindled. ( II Maccabees 1:19-22)

When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, ‘Such is the way of the world,” and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity. The following years he observed both the eight days preceding and the eight days following the solstice as days of festivity. (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a)

Months and days and nights and solstices and equinoxes and seasons were before God, and God taught them to Adam in the garden of Eden, as it is written— This is the book of the generations of Adam….And Eve taught them to Enoch, and he entered into every limb of the year…. “Seedtime” is the equinox of Tishrei (autumn). “Harvest” is the equinox of Nisan (spring). “Cold” is the solstice of Tevet (winter/Chanukah), and “Heat” is the solstice of Tammuz (summer). (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 7)

Chag haBanot: The Festival of the Daughters

In North African Sephardic countries, the seventh night of Chanukah was celebrated as the holiday Chag haBanot, the Festival of the Daughters. Chag haBanot falls on the new moon of the Hebrew month of Tevet, which is the seventh night of Chanukah. In countries like Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco, Chag haBanot was once celebrated with many local customs, and also with special feasts and sweets.

One Chag haBanot tradition was that the women would come to the synagogue and touch the Torah, then pray for the health of their daughters. In some communities, mothers would give their daughters gifts, and bridegrooms would give gifts to their brides. Girls who were fighting were expected to reconcile on Chag haBanot. Old women and young women would come together to dance. There might also be a feast in honor of the heroine Judith, an ancient Jewish woman whose courage in killing an enemy general saved her people from attack. There was also a custom of passing down inheritances on Chag haBanot.

Today men, women, and children can reclaim this holiday as a time to honor our role models, resolve our arguments, remember our ancestors, celebrate women, and give meaningful gifts to one another.

three home rituals to celebrate Chag haBanot during Chanukah

Candlelighting

On the seventh night of Chanukah, hold a special candlelighting in honor of the Festival of the Daughters. Use your menorah, or use a special second menorah for the Festival, and ask all of your family members to take a role in lighting the candles. Light each candle in honor of a hero of your family. Light the first candle in honor of Judith, the courageous heroine who saved the Jewish people at the time of the seventh night of Chanukah.

Chag haBanot Gift Giving

Use Chag haBanot as a time to give gifts of special significance to a spouse, a child, a friend, or someone else you want to honor. Choose an heirloom you’ve been meaning to pass down, a gift with family or personal significance, an item you have created yourself, a photograph of a female ancestor, or a spiritual gift such as a blessing or poem. Give the gift after candlelighting on the seventh night of Chanukah with a spoken or written explanation of its significance. You can also choose to give your gift inside a Chag haBanot box—a special receptacle for Chag haBanot gifts, first invented by a Jewish woman artist.

Chag haBanot Feast

Have a meal on the seventh night and prepare traditional Chanukah dishes—from Africa, if possible! Before the meal, give everyone a chance to talk about an unresolved conflict and say one thing she or he can do to make peace. Alternatively, before or after the meal, study the story of Judith or another Chanukah story, recalling the custom that food from meals where words of Torah are spoken contains blessing. 

The Story of Judith

After the return from the first exile, the struggling Jewish nation was attacked by the Assyrians. The great army of King Nebuchadnezzar, headed by the general Holofernes, planned to march through Judea and destroy it. Holofernes besieged Bethulia, a town in a mountain pass. The town was about to surrender when a pious, wise, and beautiful Jewish widow, Judith, promised that within three days she would deliver them from the Assyrians. Judith donned her finest attire and jewels and went to the enemy camp. She told Holofernes that she had been sent by God to give him victory. Charmed by her beauty, Holofernes believed her. He invited her to a feast, intending to seduce her. After he fell asleep, Judith drew her sword and beheaded him, put his head in a bag and left the camp. The Assyrians were dismayed over the death of their leader, and Holofernes’ army was defeated. Judith led the victory procession to Jerusalem, where she sang and danced in honor of the dedication of the Temple.

Sample Chanukah/Solstice Ceremony: 
Chanukat haTekufah/Dedication of the Solstice

Step 1: Set-Up

Place an unlit menorah with the appropriate number of candles at the center of the room. In each direction, place a symbol of the element appropriate to that direction: for earth/west, a bowl of stones, for water/south, a bowl or pitcher of water, for air/east, bells, a shofar, or spices, and for north/fire, a candle or representation of a flame. Have ready music for dancing, large squares of black gauze if you have them, a bowl of beads or stones (you can also use seeds), and a long ribbon or cloth for use as a “doorway” into light (see step 7).

Step 2: Welcome

Welcome everyone to the circle. Explain that this ceremony will honor the winter solstice as a time of the growing of light. Tell the story of Chanukah and the miraculous cruse of oil—how after the Israelites' enemies had defiled the Temple, there was only one cruse of sacred oil left to burn in the sacred lamp, yet the cruse of oil lasted for eight days, enough time to make more sacred oil. Tell the group that this story reflects the miraculous return of the sun—in winter we think it will shrivel up and disappear, yet miraculously it begins to grow again and light up the “temple” of earth. If desired, also tell everyone the story of Adam and the winter solstice (see end of this step—you can also insert this in step 5).

When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, ‘Such is the way of the world,” and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity. The following years he observed both the eight days preceding and the eight days following the solstice as days of festivity. (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a)

If there is time, discuss either story together. Then proceed to Step 3.

Step 3: Welcoming the Elements

Ask one person (preferably in advance) to invoke each element. They can do this verbally or non-verbally, with poetry or with a few sentences.

In one group I led, someone wrote a long invocation to the Shekhinah (Divine) within the earth. One person spoke the Hebrew words “ushavtem mayim besasson mimaynei hayeshuah” (with joy shall you draw water from the wells of salvation) while letting the water fall through his fingers. One person used an instrument and breathing to welcome air, and one person spoke extemporaneously about fire.

Then ask each member of the group to go and physically experience the four elements throughout the room for a few minutes. Play music during this: Linda Hirschhorn’s “Chanukah/Winter Solstice Chant” is a good choice. When people gather again, ask them which element moved them most and why. Which elements feel connected to winter solstice?

Step 4: Exploring Darknes

This is a time of year to explore what darkness does for us, why we need winter and nighttime. In one ritual I lef, we played music and asked everyone to become a creature of darkness: a bat, an undersea creature, an ant. We gave out dark cloth for people to play with and had a good time!

Step 5: Winter Solstice Story - Coming Out of Darknes

Gather everyone together and tell a story of the winter that covers themes of rising from darkness or helping one another through a frightening time. You can use the Adam story from Step 2, or any other story you like. I like to tell a story of Frau Holle, a mythic winter figure from Central Europe whom Jews knew as the bringer of snow. Or ask people to tell their own winter stories.

Step 6: Meditation: Welcoming Spring

After the story, ask people to lie down and pretend they are snow. Ask them to imagine melting into the earth and nourishing new seeds. Play music at this point (we used “Every December Sky” by Beth Nielsen Chapman). While everyone is lying down, place a stone in their hands or next to them. Wake everyone up by raising them or by playing lively music and having people dance becoming plants and trees.

Step 7: Crossing the Boundary into Light

Lay down your boundary-rope on the floor. Tell everyone that this is the boundary of the solstice. To cross it, they must give up something they have been holding on to for a long time, something they need to let go, symbolized by a stone they take from the bowl of stones, which is to be put down before the boundary. On the other side they must pick up something new (symbolized by the seeds or beads in a bowl which are to be placed on the boundary’s far side). Play music. (People will line up to cross, and when they have crossed, they will dance. ). At the end of this ritual, tell everyone to bring the bead home, place it in their doorway, and step over it as a sign of filling their home with light.

Step 8: Lighting the Menora

Ask one person to represent the cruse of oil that lights the menorah in the Temple (or have one person dress up in that role). In our ritual, we used a special colored bead hidden in the beads that people picked up on the boundary’s far side to select the kindler of the light. Recite the blessing and have the kindler light the menorah. Sing Chanukah songs and dance in celebration!

Blessings in masculine and feminine Hebrew (depending on whether you want to invoke a masculine or feminine image of God).

Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner shel Chanukah.

B’rucha at yah eloheinu ruach ha’olam asher kid’shatnu b’mitzvoteha v’tzivatnu lehadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam she’asa nisim l’avoteinu ve’imoteinu bayamim haheim u’vazman hazeh.

B’rucha at yah eloheinu ruach ha’olam she’asta nisim le’imoteinu va’avoteinu bayamim haheim u’vazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Spirit of the Universe, who has commanded us to kindle the lights of Chanukah. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Spirit of the Universe, who has done miracles for our fathers and mothers in ancient days and in modern times.

Maoz Tzur (Traditional Chanukah song with new translation)

Maoz tzur yeshuati Lecha naeh leshabeach
Tikon beit tefilati Vesham todah nizabeiach
Le’eit tachin matbeach Mitzar hamnabeach
Az egmor beshir mizmor Chanukat hamizbeach
Az egmor beshir mizmor Chanukat hamizbeach
Rock of ages, spring of life,
To you our praise wells up within.
With the breath and fire of prayer
we make you a holy dwelling.
At the time of turning, you set our fires burning.
We will come with song and drum to receive your blessing.
We will come with song and drum to receive your blessing.

End the ceremony

Aa good way to do this is to sing the Angel song, in which each angel represents one of the four directions; see below and/or by wishing everyone a happy Chanukah.

Angel Song

B’shem Hashem elohei Yisrael:
miyemini Michael umismoli Gavriel,
umilfanai Uriel, ume’acharai Refael
ve’al roshi, ve’al roshi Shekhinat El.
In the name of God, the God of the wrestling-people:
on my right hand is Michael, angel of water,
and on my left is Gabriel, angel of fire,
and before me is Uriel, angel of air,
and behind me is Raphael, angel of the earth,
and above my head is the Shekhinah of God.

Step 9

Feast on latkes and jelly doughnuts!

Winter Solstice Texts

“We are grateful before You, Eternal One, for You have brought us from darkness to light.” - Midrash Bereishit 68:11, prayer for daw

The following are Jewish legends of the winter solstice—use them in inventing your own solstice rituals! ·

In Jubilees 7, in the days of Noah, the winter solstice is the day the peaks of the mountains become visible after the floodwaters recede. ·

In the Babylonian Talmud, Adam and Eve become frightened as the winter solstice approaches, thinking the shortening of the days is a punishment. They fast for eight days. On the winter solstice, when the light grows, they celebrate for eight days (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a).

·In the Machzor Vitry, the winter solstice is the day Jephthah, a chieftain of Israel, sacrifices his daughter in fulfillment of a foolish battle vow.

·Otzar haMidrashim tells that on the winter solstice, Leviathan protects the creatures of the sea from their predators: “On every winter solstice he lifts his head and makes himself great, and blows in the water, and roils the sea, and makes all the fish in the ocean afraid.” Leviathan is a creature known for being God’s playmate and a wise teacher of human beings. His eyes, according to the Talmud, flash in the deep. Leviathan is the symbol of the mysterious depths.

·Perhaps the winter solstice seems to have to do with sight, or the lack thereof. Mountains become visible to Noah, and the patterns of nature become visible to Adam and Eve. Leviathan is associated with inner sight. Jephthah, on the other hand, is blind to his own wrongdoings. On the winter solstice the sun’s light begins to become stronger, and we too consider how to strengthen our vision.

Dreidels & Divination

Divination is a common solstice custom around the world. In Central Europe, for example, people used to burn fir branches and predict the future using the smoke. Dreams on that night were predictors for the coming year. The Scots made predictions based on who first crossed your threshold on the solstice. So it is interesting that Jews gamble with dreidels on Chanukah, the dark of the moon nearest the solstice.

Dreidel is mostly an entertaining children’s game. It is probably borrowed from the teetotum, a European spinning top. However, on the drediel each of the letters represents a powerful symbol. The four letters on a dreidel are nun, gimel, heh, and shin, standing for nes gadol haya sham, a great miracle happened there. (An Israeli dreidel has the letters nun, gimel, heh, and peh, for nes gadol haya poh, a great miracle happened here.)

The way the game is played: each player antes up a penny, piece of candy, etc. A person spins the dreidel. If the dreidel comes up nun, the player gets nothing, if heh, the player gets half the pot, if gimel, the player gets the whole pot, and if shin, the player puts in a penny. The game continues with each player taking turns until the pot is all in the hands of one person or until an agreed-on number of turns is ended.

If you want to play a round of divination dreidel, here’s one way to do it: Nun represents neshamah, the soul. Gimel (in Jewish mysticism) represents wealth. Heh represents the earth, the body, and the Shekhinah. Shin represents flames of fire, and peh, the mouth that proclaims: transformation ahead! 

Play a round of dreidel before you begin the game. Someone who receives Nun could think about spiritual wisdom—or a soul-mate!— in the coming year. Gimel invites prosperity, while Heh represents health and well-being,. Shin or Peh may bring the fires— or the winds— of change. After you play dreidel with a few friends, talk about your hopes and fears together.

Spirit Journey: Chanukah #1

SpiriT JOURNEY: CHANUKAH #2

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