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.
“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
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!”
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
|"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
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
|“I have delivered
through the longest
night. Winter Solstice."
—Olga Broumas, “Woman
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
|"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
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
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.
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.
Chanukah/Solstice: Thoughts for 2008Winter Solstice Take 2Chanukah and the Olive HarvestChanukah Ritual for the Seventh NightRituals for the Calendar New YearRitual for the Sixth Night of ChanukahJewish Winter Solstice TalesFestival of the DaughtersCandlelighting Chant for ChanukahChanukat 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."
 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
 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
 Fishman, Priscilla. Minor and Modern Festivals (Leon
Amiel Publishers, 1973), p. 65-66. Back
 See Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and
the Sacred Meet, ed. Ellen Bernstein (Jewish Lights, 2000).
Back to 
 Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shevat Anthology.
Ed. Ari Elon, Naomi Hymna, and Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication
Society, 2003). Back
 This tradition is attributed to the rabbi known as the
Maharal of Prague. Back
 Exodus Rabbah 22:1. Back
 Exodus 37:17-24. Back
 Genesis 2:9. Back
 Proverbs 3:18. Back
 Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess (Wayne State
University Press, 1967), p. 34-53. Back
 Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient
Religion of the Great Goddess (HarperCollins, 1979). Back to 
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