Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all get it. We light a Menorah, to celebrate a miracle of long-lasting light, thus lighting up the deep winter season. Ever since Josephus canonized the idea of a “Festival of Lights” (Antiquities of the Jews 12:7), that’s the story we’ve bought. Hook, line, and sinker.
There are two (2) problems with that story, and three (3) reasons why Hanukkah is actually a Festival of Darkness.
First, the problems:
1. You can’t light on Hanukkah without also extinguishing on Hanukkah. When Halacha (Jewish law) obligates a special light to be lit, it must likewise expect a special light to be squelched out. We all know that moment, maybe an hour, or forty-five minutes after “Maoz Tzur”, as that last waxy stub fights for a final flickering breath and then, poof, a lament of gray columned smoke, spirals sadly into nothingness. Menorahs stand as an excellent symbol of ultra-enduring luminescence only if you completely ignore the actual experience of lighting a Menorah.
2. Chazal (our rabbinic Sages) heartily authorized short-lasting light. The Temple’s Menorah stayed alit all night (cf. Exodus 27:21, Leviticus 24:3) and in some views, was even re-kindled at sunrise to continue shining all day (Maimonides, Hilchos Temidin uMusafin 3:10,11). One might reasonably expect – on this apparent Festival of Light – a parallel expectation for our Temple-commemorating Menorahs. But the Talmud only demands they glow “from nightfall until pedestrians leave the markets” (Shabbos 21b), understood as approximately thirty minutes (Shulchan Aruch OH 672:2). Thirty minutes! From a Temple practice of all-night shining, and a Divine gift of miraculous continuity, Chazal choose a lamp that burns just long enough to watch it fade.
These problems melt away once we re-cast the Menorah mitzvah not as a ritual of immediate kindling, but a ritual of eventual extinguishing. We light a candle to consecrate and celebrate the entire process of light dimming into dark.
It’s a powerful theme that shines across the traditional Hanukkah literature … once you start looking for it. Consider these three pieces of evidence, for a traditional view of Hannukah as a festival of darkness.
1. The very name “Maccabees”: It means Extinguishers! Granted, no one really knows exactly what the term Μακκαβαῖοι (as it appears in the Greek-language Book of Maccabees) means or what precise original Hebrew term it reflects. But in its very widespread Hebrew rendition – מכבים – it becomes a direct play off the word for extinguishing! (לכבות = to extinguish). Avraham Kahana, an early 20th century translator and scholar of the Book, offered the “extinguishers” as one potential etymology, contending that the Maccabees saw themselves as destroying – or extinguishing – the military might of their adversaries. We are left with a perfect ritual match: a holiday celebrating The Extinguishers marked by an eight day mitzvah of extinguishing! (Kahana himself advocated a different spelling, מקבי, meaning large hammer.)
2. The “descending” custom of Beis Shammai: Today, Jews around the world light one candle for Day 1 of Hanukkah, two candles for Day 2, and continue until reaching a full eight lights for Day 8. This follows the position of Beis Hillel, as recorded in the Talmud (Shabbos 21b). However, the Talmud also records Beis Shammai’s competing custom: eight candles on Day 1 and seven on Day 2, counting all the way down to a single flame on Day 8. In other words, Beis Shammai celebrate the Festival of Extinguishing! Not content with eight separate rituals of extinguished light, Beis Shammai transforms Hanukkah into one extended, holiday-long descent from a fully bright candelabrum down to but a single, flickering flame.
3. Adam the First Human celebrated a Hanukkah of Darkness: Our Sages knew well that non-Jews also celebrate winter festivals (Avodah Zarah 1:3) and even suggest a kosher, universally relevant origin for their holidays. They teach:
When Adam the First Human saw the days gradually going shorter, he said, “Woe! Perhaps because I have spoiled things, the world around me is now darkening because of me and returning to its initial state of chaos and confusion! This then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!” So he began to sit eight days in fasting and prayer. But when he saw the winter solstice and saw the days gradually going longer, he said, “This is just the way of the world!” He went and made an eight day holiday. The next year, he made both sets [of eight days] into holidays. He established it for the sake of Heaven but they [idolaters] established them for pagan worship. (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a)
It’s almost de rigeur in Jewish thought to propose this Adam legend as an additional origin story for our own eight day winter festival, in which we too find light in the midst of darkness. In this view, Hanukkah commemorate the military victory of persecuted Jews (cf. Maimonides, Hilchos Megila uHanukkah 3:1-3; the Al HaNisim prayer) and memorializes an oil-lasting miracle (cf. Talmud, Shabbos 21b), but also celebrates the universal human experience of finding light in the midst of winter’s darkness.
But here’s the thing: Adam established two eight-day festivals – “he made both sets into holidays”. The latter festival commemorates Adam redeemed from the dark, the return of light-lengthening days, and that initial moment of Adam celebrating his glowing, safe future. And many readers would love to connect Hanukkah to this second of two holidays. But we could just as well propose the former Adamic holiday as the primordial Hanukkah, which commemorates early winter’s declining days, Adam’s descent into the dark, and that initial story of Adam serving a God who demands righteousness. It offers two advantages. First, though Hannukah can fall either before or after the December 21st solstice, it predominates in the early, darkening period. (Hannukah currently ranges from a very pre-solstice start date of November 28, to only a mildly post-solstice origin of December 26th). Further, consider the religious tenor of each of these sets. The first features Adam serving God with prayer – indeed, a God he perceives as altering the world in response to our deeds. In contrast, the second holiday commemorates Adam’s exultant discovery of secularized Nature (“the way of the world”) and the apparently thrilling absence of a Divine mandate. For a holiday we associate with direct Divine interventions against Greek strength and lipidic chemistry, Adam’s first eight day festival is a far better fit. Read in this light, Hannukah’s pre-Hasmonean precursor is a universal holiday of dimming – a time to commemorate those ever-shortening winter days, as they lead us towards solstice.
Weaving these threads together, we find a holiday prefigured by Adam’s dimming days of mid-December, in which we slowly darken our lamps from eight to one flame, each night lighting a Menorah just long enough to watch it expire, in order to celebrate our Maccabee ancestors, the Extinguishers. It’s a festival that doesn’t gild or ignore Winter, but ritualizes the season’s actual features; a festival celebrating the limits of Greek “enlightenment” and a brave willingness to squelch what others saw as an unstoppable Hellenistic blaze; a festival where we see beyond secular “ways of the world” in our belief that God is the ultimate “Fashioner of Light and Creator of Darkness.” In other words, Hanukkah isn’t the Festival of Lights, but the Festival of Darkness.
Of course, this religious thread is no longer dominant. Beis Hillel overtook Beis Shammai, the Josephus-era “Festival of Lights” provide a spiritually compelling framework, and there is the occasional year when Hanukkah transpires on the lengthening days of late December. The light, it seems, has overcome the dark. But as you hold flame to wick each Hanukkah, watching fire ignite in the midst of darkness, know that it is but the beginning of this Mitzvah, one which always ends with – and sanctifies – the slow fading of the light.