Jewish Winter Solstice Tales
There are a number of Jewish stories about the winter solstice. Here are some of the legends Jews can tell one another during the darkest days of winter...
I. Adam and the Winter Solstice
"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."
(Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a)
In this story the first human being is distressed over the decreasing light and believes it is a punishment. Only when he learns that the light will begin to grow again is he comforted. We too often feel sad or anxious when the light diminishes and are glad when it comes again. Adam's drama of fear and acceptance helps us to accept our own moments of not knowing.
After the truth is revealed to him, Adam is able to celebrate before and after the solstice. This Jewish story of the winter solstice teaches us to honor darkness as well as light. We can also wonder: where might Eve be in this story? What would she think of the changing seasons and how would she celebrate them?
"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 repair [tikkun], the big ones would have eaten the smaller ones. What repair did God make? God created the Leviathan. On every winter solstice, 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
In this tale, it is the winter solstice when the world returns to order. Leviathan, the great dragon who represents chaos, the unconscious and the primordial waters, rises and stirs up the water and makes everyone afraid. So too, in the depths of winter when trees are bare, nights are long, and the earth is cold, we feel as if the forces of evil will swallow us. It is Leviathan, the playmate of God, the embodiment of the ancient power of unbridled life, who comes to our rescue, roaring at those who are greedy and selfish that those who love and cherish life will triumph. (In Near Eastern mythology this character is called Tiamat, the goddess of the deep--in Hebrew the word becomes Tehomot, or ocean-depths).
III. Jephthah's Daughter
And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to the vow which he had vowed; and she had not known man.
And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.
Jephthah (or Yiftach) is an Israelite war chieftain who foolishly makes a vow that, if he wins a battle, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes from his door to greet him. It is his only daughter who comes to greet him, and, accusing her of being his troubler, he insists that he must sacrifice her. She asks for two months to be alone with her friends, and then returns to her father to be killed. No angel saved her. This truly is one of the darkest stories of the year, and one legend claims the sacrifice was made on the winter solstice.
Some medieval Jews refrained from drawing water on the winter solstice, believing that the water was tainted by demons on that day because of the evil that was done to Jephthah's daughter, who some say is named She'ilah, meaning "question.' One way to honor her is to pour out water for her on that day as a memorial to all who are killed unjustly and a sign of determination to fight against evil even in the cold of winter.
Jephthah's daughter also represents the sacrifice of the earth at this time of year--the death of plants and the long sleep of animals. At this time of year we promise to help the earth revive, and not to poison her or waste her resources.
All three of these stories could become dramas or pageants. We can enact the stories of Adam and She'ilah and celebrate Leviathan with puppets that represent the great dragon who saves the world from destruction, as a Jewish way of welcoming the solstice.
Rabbi Jill Hammer is the founder of Tel Shemesh, a senior associate at Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's project (www.mayan.org), and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.
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