Chanukah and the Olive Harvest

Early winter has become one of my favorite seasons. I love preparing for Chanukah, watching the moon of Kislev wane on its way to the Festival of Lights, and waiting for it to grow again into a bright crescent as the nights of Chanukah go on. The stories of Chanukah, in which light dwindles to a small point and then grows again, inspire me to seek out my own rebirth. And I love to watch the length of the day grow shorter, knowing that the solstice will soon arrive and the sun will bless us with more and more of its radiance. Although Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday, for me it’s become a major reminder to hope in the future and celebrate life.

It was recently brought to my attention that Chanukah falls at the end of the olive harvest in Israel. “Of course!” I thought. No wonder the story of the Maccabees is told at this season. In the traditional Chanukah story, after a long civil war, the Maccabees (or Hasmoneans, followers of the high priest Matityahu) win their battle with the Hellenized Jews and the Syrian Greeks. They come to the Temple, which has been trashed, and start to put things to rights. They only find a small cruse of holy olive oil, yet they decide to light the menorah anyway. The oil lasts eight days, long enough to make more oil for the Tabernacle. As I’ve noted before, the story echoes the path of the winter sun, which seems to grow weaker and weaker yet somehow begins to grow stronger again as the solstice passes.

Since the Maccabees’ war didn’t end in the winter (it actually ended in the summer), it’s something of a historical puzzle why they chose to rededicate the Temple in Kislev and Tevet, the months of the winter solstice. Scholar Jonathan Goldstein believes the Maccabees waited several months for fire to be sent from heaven, and when the fire did not come, they finally lit the altar fire themselves. The Maccabees themselves tell us, in the Book of Maccabees, that their celebratory holiday occurred at the same time as an earlier celebration, when the Jews returning from exile in Babylon miraculously rediscovered and rededicated the Temple fire. That is, the Hasmoneans built their victory holiday on top of an earlier festival that had its own fire legend.
It might in fact be that both of these “rededication” holidays were actually built on local celebrations of the olive harvest, in which the new olive oil was used to rededicate the sacred lamps in the Temple and other shrines, and maybe even in private homes. This olive festival, which would have occurred around the solstice, would have celebrated the return of the sun’s light, and/or the moon’s light, at the dark of winter. It might have been a village celebration, not important enough to mention in a sacred text, but important enough to use as a “base” for the pomp and circumstance of Chanukah.

There might be a hint of this in the Book of Judith, one of the ancient apocryphal books. It tells the story of Judith, a brave and pious Jewish widow. When her town is under siege and about to fall, Judith dresses in beautiful garments, goes to the enemy camp, seduces the general, and beheads him. She then sneaks out of camp, taking the head with her and hanging it on the town’s walls. In the morning, the enemy army flees in terror, and the Jews of Judith’s town loot the abandoned camp. Judith brings the wealth of the general she has killed to the Temple and dedicates it. This story is told at Chanukah, and a figure of Judith decorates many medieval menorahs. This is somewhat surprising, as the story is not describing the Maccabees’ war and is not a Chanukah story.

But it might be a solstice story. The Book of Judith is, after all, a story of the triumph of one small person over an army— a little light illuminating the darkness. At the end of the story, a number of rituals take place that could be solstice rituals. First, when Judith returns to the village with the enemy general’s head, the people all greet her carrying lamps and torches: there is a huge collection of fires to celebrate her victory. Second, Judith goes to the Temple wearing an olive wreath, and in fact all the women and men who go with her on her pilgrimage wear olive wreaths as well. An olive wreath can be a victory wreath, as it was in the ancient Olympics, but it may also signify the season of olive harvest. Third, the women of Judith’s procession carry wands wreathed with ivy. Ivy is associated with the wild women or Maenads of Greek legend, who were honored on the winter solstice in a festival called Lenaia. In Europe ivy was used as a decorative plant for the winter solstice as well. And finally, North African Jewish legend claims that Judith’s victory took place during Chanukah on the new moon of Tevet, the dark of the moon closest to the winter solstice. The Judith story, though fictional according to most historians, might be connected to the earliest winter solstice holiday of the Jewish people: the olive harvest.

To this day, Chanukah remains a time to rededicate the family hearth: fires are lit at home, and the household gathers around to enjoy the light. We tell the historical story of the Maccabean wars, a story that has over time become a symbol of hope for national and spiritual freedom for all. Chanukah should also be a time to remember the olive harvest and be grateful for all the trees and plants that provide us with light and warmth in the darkness of winter. And those small lamps and flames should remind us of our gratitude for the sun and the moon: the hearthfires for humans around the world.

I wish you all a festive Chanukah season and a shining winter!

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh and the author of the Jewish Book of Days.

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