Hanukkah did not merit a tractate of its own in the Mishnah, but it is frequently cited in the sources, albeit for the most part incidentally. In the tractate Avodah Zarah (idol worship), Hanukkah is tangentially mentioned as part of a discussion of the two ancient festivals that were celebrated in the Roman Empire on either side of the longest night of the year – a date known in the Jewish legal jargon as the “Tevet period” (around the time Hanukkah usually falls). One festival is Kalenda (related to the word calendar), and according to the Jewish sages, it begins on the shortest day of the year, December 21, and is celebrated for eight days. The name of the other festival, per the Talmud, is Saturnura (named after the planet Saturn, which is related to the word Saturday); it, too, lasted eight days, ending on the longest night of the year.
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The Talmud cites a wonderful legend about the origin of these festivals, which are ascribed to Adam. According to the legend, “When Adam saw the day growing gradually shorter, he said The world around me is darkening and returning to its state of chaos, and this is the death meted out to me from the Heavens. So he fasted for eight days. When he saw the Tevet period (the winter solstice), with the days growing increasingly longer, he said – this is the way of the world, and observed a holiday of eight days’ duration.”
Employing the terms of psychological paradigms, the legend could be explained this way: the lengthening of the period of darkness in the 24-hour day aroused in Adam, perhaps representing every human being, reactions of anxiety and depression, accompanied by a sense of imminent loss and death. Once the period of daylight began to gradually lengthen, these harsh sensations passed, and Adam’s understanding of the periodic nature of the world, and the transition from darkness to light, were marked in a festival lasting eight days.
Do we still have this primeval fear of darkness? One of the psychological disorders that has been the subject of a growing body of research in recent years is called SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). This is a depression that afflicts humans in the winter months, and generally ends with the arrival of spring. The phenomenon is related to the decreased hours of daylight during the cold season; geographically, the incidence of seasonal depression increases the farther one goes from the equator.
Most of us are aware of the dysphoria that descends on us when we return home from work in the dark, or the relative difficulty of getting out of bed on a winter morning, in contrast to the summer. One may assume that ancient festivals of light served in part as a therapeutic response to these collective psychological phenomena. To this day, there are cultures and religions that celebrate festivals associated with light during this time of the year. Jews light candles in their homes for eight days on a date that is always very close to the winter solstice, and Christians turn on the lights of their Christmas trees on December 25, and eight days later mark the first day of their calendar.
The actual commandment of observing Hanukkah in Jewish law is worded “a candle for each man and his family” – words that could serve as a succinct piece of advice to anyone suffering from and contending with seasonal depression: family gathering around the light during the darkest period of the year to reduce loneliness and melancholy.
All of the above sheds added light on the well-known debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel (Shabbat 21b) regarding the sequence of lighting Hanukkah candles. The advantage of Beit Hillel’s method – according to which one candle should be lit on the first day with an additional candle lit on each subsequent day, as opposed to the Beit Shammai method, in which eight candles are lit on the first day and then reduced by one each subsequent day – is Beit Hillel’s sensitivity to the psychological underpinning of the holiday. In the greatest darkness one should maximize light, not diminish it. The reason for the festival, then, is the belief and the knowledge that the way of the world, as well as human nature, is fundamentally optimistic: After great darkness, light will always come.