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Archive for December 20th, 2011

A great miracle happened there.  –  English meaning of the Hebrew acronym inscribed on a dreidel

Because the Hebrew day traditionally begins at sunset (which is certainly no stranger than the European custom of beginning it at an arbitrary point in the middle of the night), the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins tonight at sunset.  Since the Jewish liturgical calendar is lunar (with intercalary months added seven times every 19 years) the holiday moves back and forth a bit with relation to the modern solar calendar, as does the Christian Easter;  it can begin any time from November 28th to December 27th, thus always falling inside the Christmas season and often overlapping Christmas Day (as it will this year).  And though there is an historical and religious explanation for the observance, what makes it interesting for our purposes is that it demonstrates how holidays and traditions of different religions and cultures can influence each other and often merge.

After the reign of King Solomon in the early 1st millennium BCE Israel broke into two kingdoms, which were later conquered by the Assyrians and Chaldeans (Babylonians) respectively.  After the Babylonians were conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia in 538 BCE the Jews were granted religious freedom (as was the Persian custom) and allowed to rebuild their temple; the modern dualism of good vs. evil, which originated in the Persian religion Zoroastrianism, appears to have entered Judaism during this period, with the traditional character Satan (who in the Book of Job is merely a sort of prosecuting attorney for Heaven) taking on the role of the Persian Ahriman, the enemy of light and goodness.  Judea then fell successively under the control of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucid Empire (the latter two both Hellenic successor-states to Alexander’s Empire).  During all this time the Jews were allowed religious freedom, but many of them became culturally Hellenized; they spoke Greek, took Greek names and practiced secular Greek customs, just as most modern Jews adopt the customs of countries in which they live.  And it’s a virtual certainty that these Hellenized Jews celebrated popular Greek festivals, just as modern Jews celebrate Thanksgiving and early Christians celebrated Sol Invictus.    The Greek predecessor to the latter was called Kronia, and was celebrated by (among other things) feasting, playing games and lighting candles and lamps.

I’ll bet you can guess what happened next; the conservative Jews condemned what they saw as the apostasy of the liberal ones, and the two camps eventually came into violent conflict over whose leader would become High Priest at Jerusalem.  The liberals (Hellenized Jews) lost and were expelled from the city in 170 BCE, so they lobbied the Emperor Antiochus IV to intercede on their behalf.  In a spectacularly ham-fisted display of power the possibly-insane Antiochus granted the request by invading Jerusalem in 167 BCE, allowing his army to desecrate and loot the temple, then banning the Jewish religion and reconsecrating the temple to Zeus.  As any rational ruler could have predicted, these actions provoked a full-scale revolt and by the end of 165 BCE the Jews under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus (Judah the Hammer) expelled the Seleucids and established the Hasmonean Dynasty.  According to legend, when the temple was reconsecrated on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev there was only enough consecrated oil to keep the sacred menorah lit for one day, yet it miraculously lasted eight days (long enough to prepare another batch).  Thus the festival of Hanukkah (“dedication”) was established to commemorate the occasion.

Now, the important thing to remember in all this is that the Hellenized Jews didn’t just go away; Antiochus’ extreme behavior forced them to side with their own people and settle their differences amicably so as to unite against the Gentiles (the struggle of orthodoxy and isolation vs. liberalism and assimilation didn’t go away, either, and has shaped the Jewish people ever since).  So it’s very possible that the festival of Hanukkah was essentially created to give the Hellenized Jews their own Kronia, just as the Christians later rededicated pagan holidays to their religion; it was from the start a nationalistic observance more like Independence Day or Cinco de Mayo than a religious one like Passover, as indicated by the fact that despite the story of the miracle, it was never established as a solemn holiday and Jews are not forbidden to engage in activities that are prohibited on the Sabbath during Hanukkah.  And though there are special prayers, the holiday was always considered a minor one celebrated more with feasting and merriment than prayer; the feasting was even given a religious justification by reaching back several centuries to the story of Judith, a beautiful widow who used her sexual capital to save her town by seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes, getting him drunk and then beheading him and carrying the grisly trophy back to her people, who rallied to drive off the now-leaderless Assyrian army.

So it remained until the mid-20th century, when American (and to a much lesser extent European) secular Jews began to celebrate it as a “Jewish Christmas”, incorporating many of the secular Christmas traditions (such as gift exchange, Christmas trees and sometimes even Santa Claus) into the celebration.  Thus a holiday which has its roots in one of the ancestors of the modern Christmas has begun to flow back into it again, like the distributary of a river which, after winding through the countryside on its own for a while, eventually rejoins the parent stream.

One Year Ago Today

December Updates” reports on the final closure of Craigslist’s “adult services” section worldwide, a proposal to block all internet porn in the UK, Lady Gaga’s opposition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, the increasing popularity of so-called “john schools”, amateur use of Date Check, a Julian Assange update, Liverpool’s treatment of attacks on prostitutes as “hate crimes”, and some very cool (though, alas, imaginary) action figures.

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