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December 21: The Solstice

December 21, 2014

winter-solstice-scenery1366x76854654The Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere — with the shortest amount of time between sunrise and sunset, thanks to the Earth's relation to the Sun, as well as the angle of the Earth's tilt — coincides on this date in 2014 with fifth day of Khanike. According to Rabbi Arthur Waskow's classic Seasons of Our Joy, "in much of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, the winter solstice was a time for imploring the sunlight to return and celebrating its readiness to do so. In Rome, the 25th of December was the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. In Persia, at the winter solstice the common people set great bonfires and their rulers sent birds aloft bearing torches of dried grass.... It is a short leap to surmising that the Syrian Greeks may have chosen the 25th of Kislev as a time to desecrate the Temple by making their own sacrifices there precisely because it was... the time of the winter solstice and the waning of the moon. And it is a short leap to surmise that the Maccabees, when they took the anniversary of that day as the day of rededication, were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God's victory over paganism." While Orthodox authorities insist that the Festival of Lights bears no relation to the solstice — since the Jewish calendar is both solar and lunar — Waskow notes that "this objection ignores the fact that the festivals that are most clearly solar — Sukkot and Pesakh, the festivals of fall and spring — are nevertheless tied to the full moon for their dates. The objection also ignores the fact that Judaism insists on keeping the sun and moon cycles in tension with each other in its entire calendar — never adopting either a purely lunar or a purely solar calendar, but insisting that each be corrected by the other."

"When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, 'Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, 'Such is the way of the world,' and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity." —Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a