Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Happy Nayrot!

Tonight, Dec 3rd, starts Hanukka (how do you spell it?).

As a kid, Hanukka was a time of presents and yummy latkes. In Hebrew school we were taught that Hanukka is the celebration of the miracle of the lamp oil: there was, the story goes, oil enough for one day, but the oil burned 8 days and allowed the re-dedication of the Temple after the Maccabees victory over the Greeks. Hanukka means dedication.

Interesting story, but it's not what makes Hanukka interesting to me--or it seems to Jews in general. Hanukka has a rather surprising checkered past, but the Jewish people never gave up on it.

Hanukka replaces the ancient holiday of Nayrot. Nayrot was a winter solstice holiday that like most solstice celebrations involved lights (Christmas lights anyone?). The winter solstice is the darkest time of the year and so ancient cultures would light fires and have festivals involving lights and fires to fill the dark winter period. This also probably involved a little of what the late Rabbi Wine called "imitative magic." The mystical hope was that by lighting fires this would inspire the sun to rekindle, get brighter, and lead to spring.

The Israelite priests weren't big fans of this holiday because it was part of an older Sun-worshiping religion and not the Yahweh worship they were pushing. They tried, but couldn't wipe it out. Then, the Maccabees used the holiday to solidify the memory and glory of their victory and Hanukkah was born.

Problem was, the Rabbis, who would replace the priests as the religious leaders after the destruction of the temple, weren't fans of the Maccabees. This is why the holiday and The Books of the Maccabees are not in the the Jewish Bible. The Maccabees, you see, didn't only fight the Greeks, but Hellenized Jews. When the Maccabees came to power, they were a bit on the fundamentalist side stamping out any form of Judaism that didn't fit what they thought was correct practice. This ended up pitting them against the Pharisees who would later grow into the rabbinical tradition.

Still, the ancient ritual of lighting fires in the dark winter months continued; the priests couldn't get rid of Nayrot and the Rabbis couldn't get rid of Hanukkah. Some argue that the Rabbis invented the story about the miracle oil in order to make Hanukkah fit more with the Rabbi's vision of Judaism. If you can't beat them, assimilate them.

So, Hanukkah isn't interesting to Jews because of some tale of oil. We love Hanukkah for the same reason our ancient forebears did: it's dark and cold outside (here in Roscoe, it's snowing!) and the bringing of light and warmth into the home at this time is joyful. It is also a moment of pride. We can conquer the winter, control fire, and be warm and prosperous even as the natural world (temporarily) dies.

And, of course, there are those latkes smothered in apple sauce.

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