The First Festival of Light

Chanukah is often referred to as the Festival of Light(s). But it is not the first Festival of Light in the ancient world, as the Talmud (Bavli) tells us in Tractate Avodah Zarah, 8a:

Mishnah. These are the festivals of the idolaters:  kalenda,  saturnalia,  kratesis,  the anniversary of accession to the throne as well as [royal] birthdays and anniversaries of deaths. This is R. Meir’s opinion.

דף ח,א משנה  ואלו אידיהן של עובדי כוכבים קלנדא וסטרנורא וקרטיסים ויום גנוסיא של מלכיהם ויום הלידה ויום המיתה דברי רבי מאיר

Gemara. Said R. Hanan b. Raba: KALENDA is kept  eight days following the [winter] solstice. SATURNALIA eight days preceding the solstice. As a mnemonic take the verse, Thou hast beset me behind and before.

Our Rabbis taught:  When Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping eight days of fasting [and prayer]. But as he observed the winter solstice and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world’s course’, and he made an eight day festival. In the following year he appointed both  as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but they [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry.

דף ח,א גמרא  אמר רב חנן בר רבא קלנדא ח’ ימים אחר תקופה סטרנורא ח’ ימים לפני תקופה וסימנך (תהילים קלט) אחור וקדם צרתני וגו’

ת”ר לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית [ובתפלה] כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים הוא קבעם לשם שמים והם קבעום לשם <עבודת כוכבים> {עבודה זרה

The mishnah is discussing idolatrous Roman holidays, on which Jews must take extra pains to refrain from “aiding and abetting” idolatry (as per the previous paragraphs of the mishnah, not quoted here.) The gemara uses this as the jumping off point for some fascinating aggadah.

Two of the Roman holidays discussed, Saturnalia and Kalenda, occur before and after the winter solstice (nowadays on December 21 or 22), and each is an eight-day-long festival. (The eight day length of these is not entirely clear from the precise language of R. Hanan b. Raba. The phrase used “ח’ ימים אחר תקופה“ might mean a one day holiday occurring eight days after the solstice. Likewise for eight days before.)

Note that in the Bavli version (as well as most “stand-alone” editions) of the Mishnah, one of these is called “סטרנורא”; however the same mishnah appears in the Yerushalmi, where the holiday is called “Saturnalia”:

דף ב,ב פרק א הלכה ב משנה  אילו הן אידיהן של עכו”ם קלנדס וסטרנלייא וקרטסי’ ויום גינוסיא של מלכים ויום הלידה ויום המיתה דברי ר”מ

This is also the case in other literature, and hence in the translation above (taken from the Soncino edition).

The brief Talmudic description here of Saturnalia  is roughly historically accurate; the holidays themselves and the Roman calendar (a word derived from kalends!) changed over different periods in history. The name comes from the Roman god Saturn, as you could have guessed. (But that is not the connection to astronomy here!) In the Roman calendar, every month had a kalends – the first of the month – but the kalends of January, the one described here, shortly after the winter solstice, was also the New Year, as it is in the secular calendar today. When some centuries later, the Roman Empire became Christian, these were transformed into the Christian holidays that are celebrated at those times.

This aggadah explains that these Roman holidays actually go back all the way to Adam (and Eve) – but have been twisted into idolatrous festivals since.

The Talmud relates that after the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam saw the world was heading into darkness, as the days were getting shorter and the nights longer. He feared that this was the promised punishment for his sin, a slow death, not only for himself but for the world. This led him to prayer and fasting for eight days, before the solstice. Then upon passing the winter solstice (the day of the year with the shortest day and longest night) and seeing that the days began to get longer again, he realized that it is nature’s usual course, and not his punishment. He then made a holiday for eight days, and established both of these eight-day periods as holidays to God in subsequent years. Later in history, “they” made it into a holiday for idolatry.

According to this aggadah, Adam’s realization would have perhaps been the first astronomical/scientific observation in history! (cf. “Adam the First” in Rav J. B. Soloveichik zt”l’s Lonely Man of Faith).

So what is the natural/scientific explanation for this phenomenon, and for the seasons, solstices and equinoxes?

Most modern people know that it has to do with the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. But exactly how/why is often poorly understood.

Here’s a thought question related to what causes the seasons:

True or False? Earth is closer to the Sun in summer and farther from the Sun in winter.

Here’s a hint: remember that when it is summer in America, it is winter in Australia, and vice versa.

The answer is “False”; Earth is actually closer to the Sun in winter and farther from the Sun in summer, but not by much. The variation of the Earth–Sun distance is small, about 3%; this small variation is not enough to make as big of a difference as we experience in seasons.

Earth's orbit around the Sun showing equinoxes, solstices and closest and farthest orbital distance
Earth’s orbit around the Sun showing equinoxes, solstices and closest and farthest orbital distance

The real reason for the seasons is the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation, as measured from perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the Sun. As Earth orbits the Sun, this tilt causes each hemisphere to receive more direct sunlight – i.e. sunlight striking the ground at closer to a vertical angle – in its summer months, and thus be warmed more. The hemispheres receive less direct sunlight in the winter months and are consequently colder.

Earth's orbit around the Sun showing axial tilt and illumination on solstices and equinoxes.
Earth’s orbit around the Sun showing axial tilt and illumination on solstices and equinoxes.
Earth's illumination from the Sun showing axial tilt in Northern Hemisphere summer
Earth’s illumination from the Sun showing axial tilt in Northern Hemisphere summer

The tilt also causes the days to be shorter and nights longer in the northern hemisphere when the North pole is pointing away from the Sun, and vice versa. Note that the axis, like a gyroscope, continues to point in the same direction on both sides of the Earth’s orbit. That means that one hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun on one “side” of the Sun and away from it on the other side (i.e. six months later), and the reverse in the other hemisphere.

For the same reason, the Sun appears for more hours of the day in summer than in winter, an effect that is more pronounced the closer one is in latitude to the poles. At the poles, day and night each last for six months! The shortest/longest days/nights of the year are on the solstices. On the equinoxes (in June and September) the day and night are of equal length.

Sun's daily path through sky in the Northern Hemisphere, illustrated on solstices and equinoxes
Sun’s daily path through sky in the Northern Hemisphere, illustrated on solstices and equinoxes


This then is “מנהגו של עולם” – the course of nature – that Adam observed.

By now, you’ve probably noticed that Adam’s eight day celebration of more light returning to the world is right around the same time as our Festival of Light(s) – Chanukah!

But you say “not quite…” Chanukah is not exactly right before or right after the solstice, just generally around that time of year. That is undeniably true. However, the similarity would seem much greater if we noted that the solstice was, back then around the first or second century, on the 25th of December, not the 21st or 22nd as it is today! (This is because the Julian calendar’s years are not exactly equal to a solar year. So astronomically significant dates have “drifted” over the centuries. More on that in some future post, bli neder.)  And Chanukah is on the 25th of Kislev! Alright, they are still not quite same time – one is the 25th of a lunar month, the other of a solar month. So one will regularly be on the solstice (back then) and one won’t be very often. But the resemblance is quite a bit more similar – both on the 25th of a month close(st) to the winter solstice. Besides, this is midrash we’re discussing. The Talmud did not need to show a precise equality, but merely a thematic similarity, to make a point: That, in addition to celebrating the miracles in the time of the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus, Chanukah also recalls the Festival of Light of Adam HaRishon.

Chanukah, in as much as it resembles Adam’s holiday at least, celebrates not only light, but also the order of natural/scientific laws governing the world, for which Adam was so grateful to God when he discovered them. Even though we celebrate Chanukah with a focus on miracles, this sugya of the gemara reminds us that natural laws govern the world. The Maccabean victory over the Seleucid Greeks was a miracle, but it was a nes al derech ha’teva – a miracle that God wrought for us without violating the laws of nature – the kind that we should appreciate are always all around us – bayamim hahem and bazman hazeh!
Happy Festival(s) of Light!


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