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Thoughts on Nittelnacht Regarding Christmas and Hanukkah

Christmas is the festival of trees,

but Hanukkah’s the festival of lights,

each one equally designed to ease,

when darkness of the endless winter nights

makes people wonder: “When will spring return?”

Such longing for midsummer nights and dreams.

Trees wake up this for gentiles when they yearn,

while Jews who see the candles with their gleams

find eight days at the winter equinox

sweet solace for the troubles of the past,

Reform, Conservative and Orthodox,

until the eighth burns out, which is the last.

Is there a difference between Christmas

and Hanukkah that isn’t just banal,

or are they both like Panama, an isthmus

divided by a Christmastide canal?

There is: when Christmas ends you trash the tree,

but after Hanukkah has lost the aura,

the fête of candles being accompli,

there’s endless time to treasure the menorah.

Another difference I see between them

is illustrated in a talmudic tale,

whose message is that wise Jews should condemn

all idol worshippers because they fail

to realize the way that days are shortened

and lengthened, is because we see that’s how

God made the world with laws that are important

to understand, as scientists do now.

According to this tale, as I then read it,

Adam being not a panicker

believed that God had just relit the world .

His festival turned into Hanukkah.

By contrast, idol worshippers, we’re told,

did not thank God, and celebrated what

turned into Christmas. Since I am so bold,

you may believe what I just claimed, or not.

I maintain here that there is a polemic

in the Talmud against Christmas, and

Hanukkah is thought of as systemic,

a festival in which false faith was panned,

celebrating light’s return to earth,

based on the laws of nature, as we’d learn,

by thanking God in heaven, and not the birth

of any son of God, a tale we spurn.

Nittel Nacht or Nittel is a name given to Christmas Eve by Jewish scholars in the 17th century, observed as early as the late 16th century by Rabbi Samuel Eidels.

 

I added the second verse on Nittelnacht, 12/25/22, the seventh day of Hanukkah 5783, during Christmas Eve, after reading this in the Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3:

מתני׳ ואלו אידיהן של עובדי כוכבים קלנדא וסטרנורא וקרטיסים ויום גנוסיא של מלכיהם ויום הלידה ויום המיתה דברי רבי מאיר

And these are the festivals of gentiles: Kalenda, Saturnalia, and Kratesis, and the day of the festival of their kings, and the birthday of the king, and the anniversary of the day of the death of the king. This is the statement of Rabbi Meir.

Wikipedia describes Saturnalia as follows:

Saturnalia is an ancient Roman festival and holiday in honour of the god Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves as it was seen as a time of liberty for both slaves and freedmen alike.

The rabbis claim in the Palestinian Talmud that the name of the festival Saturnalia is derived from a Hebrew phrase meaning “hidden hatred” (שנאה טמונה) (see “Roman Festivals in Rabbinic Literature and the intersection of Judaism and Rome,” by Catherine Bonesho, August 22, 2018, https://classicalstudies.org/scs-blog/cbonesho/blog-roman-festivals-rabbinic-literature-and-intersection-judaism-and-rome). The Babylonian Talmud in Avodah Zarah 8a translates it into witty Aramaic as  “Satanuria,” meaning  “hiding light,”  denoting the shortening of days at the winter solstice, and commenting on this mishnah, tells the following story about   Adam’s reaction to the first winter solstice:

כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים הוא קבעם לשם שמים והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים

Once he (Adam) saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities. He, Adam, established these festivals for the sake of Heaven, but they, the gentiles of later generations, established them for the sake of idol worship.

The  agaddata in bAvodah Zarah 8a is probably  based on a similar one in the Palestinian Talmud, where it was probably a polemic against Christmas. It is possible that the Babylonian amoraim also saw the story as an anti-Christian polemic,  because the presence of Christians in Babylon is even mentioned in the New Testament  (1 Peter 5:13).

While Catherine Bonesho reads the aggadata in the Yerushalmi Talmud as an anti-Roman polemic, I read it and the one in the Babylonian Talmud as poetically suggesting  that Adam prophetically celebrated a festival like Hanukkah as an antidote to Christmas in the first winter solstice. This festival celebrated his awareness that the world runs on the principle of מנהגו של עולם, the term the aggadata uses to denote what we call the laws of physics, and that it is not controlled  by idolatrous gods such as the alleged son of God whom some would regard as their  מנהיג, leader. Being at least as smart as Einstein,  Adam realized during the world’s first winter solstice that God not only does not play with dice, but that He never gave the world his son as a Christmas present. Aware of the significance of his hiddush, he celebrated a festival whose paradigm would be followed millennia later on Hanukkah.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.
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