As a child, I always wondered why mince pies were on sale in kosher supervised bakeries in my native Manchester. Was this food not themed on a strange custom — the celebration of festivals of non-Jewish origin? Why would this be “kosher” on a Jewish table?
These were the days before my rabbinic ministry. On Merseyside, I was to discover fruit loaf and yes, kosher hot cross buns at the Penny Lane Bakery.
Aside from the question of whether eating foods at a particular time of the year may or may not constitute chukat akum, foreign custom forbidden to Jews, a more fundamental issue lies at the heart of December and January: is December 25 a specifically idolatrous date in the calendar?
Perhaps the answer lies in a little known holiday described in a baraita, an early talmudic text, reported in the talmudic tractate called Avodah Zarah (Laws concerning Idolatry, 8a), which revolutionised my understanding.
According to the Talmud, on the eighth day of creation, on the third of Ellul in the record of biblical history, Adam was banished from the utopian existence of Paradise on earth. Each day that passed, Adam lifted his eyes to the new horizon. Daylight waned a little faster each day, as the world’s first winter approached.
Adam was fearful, and wondered whether the earth was soon to end, owing to his sinfulness. Was this his punishment for his “original sin” — eating of the tree of good and evil? Adam prayed and fasted incessantly for his deliverance and that of the world.
Then, at least three months after the story of creation unfolded, sunset tarried a while. Joyous and exultant, Adam discovered that the dreaded unexplained had a rational reason.
In thanksgiving, he declared an eight-day festival after the winter solstice, marking the triumph of life and light over impending doom. Although the date was not given, it would stand to reason that it was the 25th — three intervening days after solstice, serving as confirmation that the shortening of day length was no more than a phenomenon of nature, of creation itself.
So is the root of winter light festivals pagan? Not according to the Babylonian Talmud which declares: “Adam established those days of festival for the sake of Heaven; later generations dedicated them to idol worship.”
So are Diwali and Yuletide — said to be the forerunner of Xmas-time celebrations and Roman solar festivals held on December 25 — late derivatives of the most ancient, universal festival of human history preserved in Jewish tradition? What may be the implications for a universal festival in the context of modern halachic practice? Should we reclaim this festival and promote it as Jews to the world? Or does Chanucah supersede and override the eight-day festival of Adam, celebrating nature’s rebirth nearly 57 centuries ago, with the eight-day re-dedication of the family of Matthias Maccabeus in 165 BCE?
Perhaps the Talmud’s focus is as much on the concept of human thanksgiving as on the discovery by ancient man of calendar timetable. American Jews — including some of the most observant — enthusiastically mark Thanksgiving Day. There is no question of religious dissonance here; when the objective is to give thanks to God, all of humanity, Jewish or not, should join hands in awe of their Creator.
Nonetheless, scripture warns against participation in the ways of non-Jewish religious practice, even customs that are not specifically religious, in case we are led deeper into involvement in non-Jewish practices, as per the midrashic comment: “Do not say, because they go out wearing an avtiga [thought to be a toga], so will I also wear an avtiga.”
Some early medieval rabbis in England and Franco-Germany (known as Tosafists) ruled out any form of non-Jewish custom entering the Jewish calendar. The halachic consensus, though, seems to follow the opinion of Joseph Colon Trabatto, known as Maharik (15th century), who also ruled leniently on wearing gentile dress, permitting non-Jewish custom provided there was no religiously objectionable source for it.
In line with rulings delivered by the undisputed leader of Ashkenazi Jews in the 20th century, Rabbi Moses Feinstein, marking the day with a special meal, say of turkey and cranberries, would be quite harmless. However, Rabbi Feinstein was opposed to creating a sense of obligation or “mitzvah” in publicly marking a festival rooted in a non-religious source, or endowing it with its own ritual, but saw no reason to forbid celebration in private quarters.
Clearly, the Talmud recognises the validity of a pre-Judaic festival. So would we mark this time of the year with a special dinner, not for Christmas but in honour of our most ancient ancestor? Or would a day of learning about the workings of the Hebrew calendar, Jewish aspects of astronomy or the concept of gratitude for the world’s renewal be appropriate on any chosen day in late December? More so, why has this festival never gained recognition in the Hebrew calendar?
It seems that for us as Jews, creation is very old news; we are more concerned with celebrating the purpose of the world rather than the fact of its being.
So perhaps Chanucah has absorbed, rather than banished, Adam-tide. The eight-day concept is preserved, as is the date of the 25th — albeit of Kislev. The Temple’s rededication equates with nature’s rebirth, rekindles the light of hope and religious freedom and breathes new and meaningful life into it.
Maybe this was the reason why this date was chosen to purify the Temple after its desecration, as explained in the Second Book of Maccabees, 5:10: “On the anniversary of the day on which the temple had been profaned by the gentiles, that is, the twenty-fifth of the same month Kislev, the purification of the temple took place.”
In this way, the particular message of Chanucah — rescue from oppression and hope for a better future — is built in to the natural order, when at its peak, winter recedes and spring beckons.