1 Tishrei
Autumn Equinox
Rosh HaShanah

11 Cheshvan
Rachel's Death

1 Tevet
Winter Solstice

15 Shevat
Festival of Trees

1 Nisan
Spring Equinox

18 Iyar
Lag B'Omer
Torah and Manna

1 Tammuz
Summer Solstice
Mourning Jerusalem

15 Av
Tu B'Av
Harvest Dancing

The Shoot

It is winter, and snow blankets the earth. The bare trees and the simple lines of the earth give a stark beauty to the world. Frost makes patterns on the glass. The days are short, and darkness dominates the sky. The moon is hidden. Then Chanukah, the festival of fire, comes in a blaze of celebration. After the autumn harvest, which marks the descent into spirit, dream-time, and the buried root of life, Chanukah marks the emergence, out of that root, of a new light into the world. Just as a seed produces a sprout when the days begin to lengthen, the season of the winter solstice invites us to awaken into newness and hope.

Chanukah begins on the twenty-fifth of the Hebrew month of Kislev. This is the anniversary, some say, of the day the Israelites finished giving beautiful materials for the Tabernacle, the Shekhinah’s dwelling-place. The gifts represent the outpouring of the heart. Chanukah itself gives a gift of the heart—the promise of new light in the world. At the winter solstice, deep in the inwardness of winter, the season turns and the light begins to grow again. The Chanukah menorah begins with a single light and ends with many. So too, the sun begins as a distant, dull light and ends in the blazing warmth of spring.

Chanukah represents the shoot that begins to emerge from the ground, using all of its inward energy to bring new life to the earth. On the Sabbath of Chanukah we read the story of how the prophet Zechariah prophesies to an exiled people that a shoot (tzemach) will come to lead them home.

Tevet photo

“Behold, I am bringing my servant the Shoot...

"The angel who spoke with me came back and wakened me as one who awakes from sleep. He said to me: What do you see? And I said: I see a lampstand all of gold..." —Zechariah 3:7

Element: Fire
Direction: North
Angel: Gabriel
Sefirah: Gevurah/Chochmah (Strength/Wisdom)
World: Atzilut (Spirit)

The Story of the Season


The increasing light of the Chanukah menorah hearkens back to a time of civil war and outside attack, when the nation of Israel was struggling with itself. Some Jews wanted to become like other Hellenized peoples, while others wanted to keep a distinct heritage. When Syrian-Greek authorities demanded that Jews participate in worshipping the king Antiochus as a god, many Jews rebelled and fought, defending their religious ideals The result was a surprising victory for the small Jewish nation. When the Jews sought o rededicate the Temple to their faith, legend tells that there was only enough oil to light the eternal light for one day. Yet miraculously, the oil lasted for eight, long enough for the priests to make and consecrate new oil. This Chanukah miracle echoes the return of the sun—it seems that there is not enough light to last the winter, but, on the winter solstice, the light miraculously begins to grow. By the seventh night of Chanukah, the first of Tevet, the new moon, seven candles shine, lit by one “helper” flame. The menorah is almost complete—and winter is beginning to meet its match.

One light, like a new life, appears in the womb of the dark temple. In mystical terms, Binah, the Divine palace and temple of souls, the heavenly mother, gives birth to the seven spheres of God—eight lights in all. The helper-light, or shamash, represents chochmah, the “father wisdom,” the face of God that represents the first light of creation. The first of Tevet represents the return of that first light and the beginning of warmth and growth. Chanukah was originally a belated harvest festival, celebrated in the winter because the civil war had occupied the people during the autumn. It is a kind of spiritual harvest, when we express our faith that our dedication (the literal meaning of the word Chanukah) can bring new light to the world.

“A tent is set in the heavens for the sun.
He is like a bridegroom
coming out from his wedding canopy,
Rejoicing like a hero to run the race!”
—Psalm 34:4

There is a story about Adam (the first person), and the winter solstice. The story tells that when Adam saw the days growing shorter, he feared that God was angry and planned to destroy the world. He fasted for eight days and nights. Then the light began to grow longer. “This is the way of the world,” Adam said, and he spent eight days in celebration. The next year, he celebrated both the eight dark days and the eight days of light. The Talmud gives this story as the explanation for the Roman winter solstice festival of Saturnalia, but it is also an explanation for the eight days of Chanukah that we celebrate. Like Adam, we use the light of the physical world to give ourselves hope.

"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

The first of Tevet is the day we celebrate Judith, an ancient mythic heroine. Holofernes, a general of Nebuchadnezzar, besieged Judith’s city, planning to destroy it and then conquer all of Israel. The city elders, hungry and thirsty, wanted to surrender. Judith, a wise, brave, beautiful and pious widow, promised to save the city. She dressed in gorgeous clothes and did her hair, then went to the enemy camp. She convinced Holofernes that she was on his side and remained with him for three days. Then, while he slept, she cut off his head and brought it back with her to her town. The enemy fled, terrified, and Judith led a procession to the temple where she danced, sang, and dedicated Holofernes’ bed to the Temple as a gift. The heroine Judith is like a flame, inspiring others to defeat what oppresses them. She symbolizes the realm of gevurah or strength and self-protection.

"If the sun, which is only one of the countless servants of the Holy One, shines on the whole world, how much more so the Shekhinah of the Holy One!” —Sanhedrin 39a

In North African countries, the seventh night of Chanukah (1st of Tevet) was set aside as Chag haBanot, the Festival of the Daughters. 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. Another tradition was for women to go to the synagogue, touch the Torah, and pray for the health of their daughters. There might also be a feast in honor of Judith. There was also a custom of passing down inheritances on Chag haBanot. Chag haBanot recognizes that 1 Tevet is a time of receiving the gift of light, and of drawing generations together to honor the birth of spirit within us.

“I have delivered
through the longest
night. Winter Solstice."
—Olga Broumas, “Woman with Child”

In spite of these tales of struggle against darkness, darkness is also a valued part of Chanukah.

One final story about the 1st of Tevet: there is a midrash that on the first day of Tevet the great sea monster Leviathan comes to the surface of the ocean and roars. This roar scares the large fish so that they do not eat too many of the smaller fish—without this roar, all the fish in the ocean would consume one another. Leviathan, according to the Zohar, symbolizes the forces of the unconscious and the underworld. Sometimes it is our darkness that calls to us to wake us up and keep us from hurting ourselves and others.

"God created in the sea big fish and little fish. The size of the biggest fish was one hundred parsangs, two hundred, three hundred, even four hundred. If it was not for God’s merciful tikkun, the big ones would have eaten the smaller ones. What tikkun did God make? God created the Leviathan. On every first of Tevet, Leviathan would rear his head and make himself great and snort in the water and stir it up, and the fear of him would fall on all the fishes in the sea. If this were not so, the small could not stand before the great." —Otzar haMidrashim, Hashem Bechachmah Yasad Aretz 6

Sometimes, on Chanukah, it is the darkness that speaks. The civil war that Jews fought over their ideas about religion reminds us, in our day, that too much focus on the light, on zeal and what we believe, can be dangerous. We also need to focus on the darkness; the things we do not know, the mysteries that keep us humble. A plant needs the darknes s of the soil to grow just as much as it needs sun. Too much sun, and a flower can wilt. Chanukah, the time of rededicating the sacred space, is a time for acknowledging the dark mysteries of life.


Steps of the Season


Like the shoot that must work its way upward out of the earth, the spiritual light of Chanukah must struggle forward through the winter season. Tevet (usually corresponding to December or January) is often regarded as a sad month in the Jewish calendar. During this month, we mark the tenth of Tevet, the date when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem. It is taught in rabbinic midrash that Tevet is one of the months of the year ruled by dark forces.

Yet the darkness is a fertile one. As the vine of the year climbs upward, the month of Shevat arrives—the time when sap begins to run in the trees (usually corresponding to January or February). In Israel, flowers begin to bloom. According to Hai Gaon, a 9th century sage, in Shevat God throws three coals into the world to warm the air, the water, and the earth. Soon Tu B’Shevat, the festival of trees, will arrive to proclaim that life is running through the veins of the world, warmed by the returning sun.

From the book of Proverbs, concerning the creation of Wisdom:

I am Wisdom! I live wisely…
I am understanding. Courage is mine.
Through me kings reign
and rulers decree justice…
Those who love me I love,
and those who seek me will find me.

The Eternal created me
at the beginning of his path,
the first of his ancient works.
I was made in the distant past,
before the beginning of the origins of earth…
I was born before there were depths,
before the springs of water,
before the mountains were rooted.
Before the hills I was born!

I was next to him as a confidant,
and I was a daily source of joy,
playing before him at all times,
playing with the world, the land,
and humankind was my delight.

Now, children, listen to me,
for happy are those who keeps my ways…
The one who finds me has found life
and grace from the Eternal.
Those who sin against me destroy their souls,
and all who hate me love death.

Other Paths


The winter solstice marks the return of the sun for many cultures. In Europe it is often called Yule, or “wheel,” and celebrates the birth of the god of light. In Teutonic lands, the winter solstices were a time for celebrating goddesses of life and death such as Frau Holle, keeper of the pond of souls, sender of snow and ice, spinner of the thread of life, and leader of processions of departed spirits. Jews knew of Frau Holle through a German Jewish naming ritual that invoked her. Christians celebrate this time as the birth of Jesus. In China, this time is also celebrated as the sun’s birthday. Centuries ago, the winter solstice was considered the birthday of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and fertility. Though Chanukah lore does not include a birth, it honors the kindling of light, the rededication of the Temple, the sacred center and the Divine hearth—a rebirth of holiness.

Gott hat zich tzerkriegt mit der Gotteke un dei habn tzerisen das eiderbet un tzushit di federn”— God has fought with the Goddess and they have torn the featherbeds and thrown down the feathers.” —old Yiddish saying quoted by Dov Sadan (“Marat Holle (gilgulo shel motiv).” Yeda Am, 9 (1952), p. 15-17). This is a Jewish version of a German saying about Frau Holle and her husband.

Vier Holda git mich urloup, dass ich ga in iuren hof un breche ein blat, das mich si guot”—“Beautiful Holda, allow me to go into your garden and break a leaf, that it will be good for me.” —From a spell recorded by a Jew, Baruch Ahrweiler, in the 14th century

Ideas for Celebration


One way to celebrate the 1st of Tevet is by giving earth-centric Chanukah gifts like stones, shells, herbs or wood carvings. One can also hold a winter solstice/Chanukah ritual, or a feast to honor Judith and other heroic women. Sometimes I tell Frau Holle stories. My mother knew Frau Holle as a woman who lived in the sky and sent down the snow, and I always think of her when the snow falls.

When lighting the Chanukah menorah on the 1st of Tevet, one can say a special prayer for the return of light to the world. Meditating on the Chanukah lights is a way to revive the spirit and encourage the hope that the Shekhinah will awaken more deeply within us as the spring approaches. The next morning (or the morning after the winter solstice if more appropriate), go out and pay special attention to the sun, which may be rising a little earlier than it did the day before. As the Israelites rejoiced when they finished the work of the tabernacle, rejoice in all the physical and spiritual work that you have done, and look forward to the seasons ahead.

Jill Hammer

  • Chanukah/Solstice: Thoughts for 2008
  • Winter Solstice Take 2
  • Chanukah and the Olive Harvest
  • Chanukah Ritual for the Seventh Night
  • Rituals for the Calendar New Year
  • Ritual for the Sixth Night of Chanukah
  • Jewish Winter Solstice Tales
  • Festival of the Daughters
  • Candlelighting Chant for Chanukah
  • Chanukat haTekufah/Ritual for Chanukah and the Winter Solstice (Jill Hammer)
  • Jephthah's Daughter: A Lament
  • Birthday of Inanna (Sumeria), Dec. 21

    "My father gave me the heavens,
    gave me the earth,
    I am Inanna!
    Kingship he gave me,
    queenship he gave me,
    waging of battle and attack he gave me,
    the floodstorm he gave me,
    the hurricane he gave me!
    The heavens he set as a crown upon my head,
    the earth he set as sandals on my feet,
    a holy robe he wrapped around my body,
    a holy scepter he placed in my hand.
    The gods are sparrows, I am a falcon."


    [1] I have associated this seasonal moment with the realm of daat/knowledge (sometimes considered as an eleventh sefirah or realm of God), because the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is called “etz daat tov vera,” using the same word, daat. Back to [1]

    [2] Babylonian Talmud, Rosh haShanah 2a. The first of Tishrei is the new year for people, the first of Nisan is the new year for time, and the first of Elul is the new year for animals. Back to [2]

    [3] Fishman, Priscilla. Minor and Modern Festivals (Leon Amiel Publishers, 1973), p. 65-66. Back to [3]

    [4] See Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet, ed. Ellen Bernstein (Jewish Lights, 2000). Back to [4]

    [5] Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shevat Anthology. Ed. Ari Elon, Naomi Hymna, and Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication Society, 2003). Back to [5]

    [6] This tradition is attributed to the rabbi known as the Maharal of Prague. Back to [6]

    [7] Exodus Rabbah 22:1. Back to [7]

    [8] Exodus 37:17-24. Back to [8]

    [9] Genesis 2:9. Back to [9]

    [10] Proverbs 3:18. Back to [10]

    [11] Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess (Wayne State University Press, 1967), p. 34-53. Back to [11]

    [12] Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (HarperCollins, 1979). Back to [12]

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