Channukah, the Festival of Lights, is actually enveloped in three layers of darkness.
First of all, it takes place at night, and is the only holiday whose only action is taken at night. Even Pesach, where the Seder takes a major role, there are sacrifices brought during the day.
Secondly, it takes place in the winter, the only holiday to really do so. Purim is in the end of winter, but is connected with Pesach in the spring. All the biblical holidays take place around the harvest season, from Pesach in the beginning, to Sukkot in the end. This is logical, since without a holiday framework, it would be very easy to forget God in the midst of the agricultural preparations, and forget to thank Him after the harvest. But the winter is sort of a “dead” time for farmers and there is no real need for a holiday. And not only does Channukah fall in the winter, but according to the Maharal it is actually associated with the winter solstice, the shortest day (and longest night) of the year. He comes to this conclusion based on the idea that the man was created on 1 Tishrei; therefore the world was created on 25 Elul. If the year is divided into 4 seasons, with the first day of the season being either the equinox or the solstice, then 4 months after the 25th of Elul is the 25th of Kislev – Channukah. An additional interesting source is the midrash in Avoda Zara, which talks about how Adam was afraid as the days got shorter, but when the days began to get longer (after the winter solstice), he had a celebration lasting 8 days. While Channukah is not mentioned in the midrash, the connection seems to be there nonetheless. (Also interesting is the following midrash that discusses Adam’s similar fear in the first night, until the day began to break.)
Lastly, I would say that Channukah takes place in Judaism’s “Dark Ages.” It falls during the Second Temple period, between the closing of the Tanach, and the earliest rabbinic literature. The biblical period of Ezra and Nechemia end with a whimper, not a bang, dissolving into the fog of history. There are many questions about this period brought up both in rabbinic and historical circles --- neither seem to know exactly what took place when. Historians admit they have huge gaps of knowledge here. And from the Jewish perspective, the large number of questions related to the time points to either a general fog over the era or the after-effect of not having authoritative literature. One issue is the “missing 170 years” that have fascinated rabbis and scholars. Another is the status of the Apocrypha – the Sefarim Chitzonim, external books to the biblical canon. Their “in-between” status seems to characterize the entire period. Also, many of the questions surrounding Channukah itself stem from the lack of official texts. Why is there no Masechet Channukah? Where do the Macabees fit into the chain of tradition described in the beginning of Pirkei Avot? What were Babylonian and the rest of Diaspora Jewry’s reactions to these events? Why does the story of the vial of oil only appear in such late rabbinic sources? I won’t venture an answer to these questions, but had the bible continued until the events of Channukah, or had the rabbinic literature flourished at the same level it did a few hundred years later, it is likely we would not be as confused as we are now.
To truly understand the significance of the darkness surrounding Channukah, it is important to understand the alternatives. Why does it seem so strange to us that a holiday would take place in the dead of winter, seemingly in the middle of the night?
To answer this, lets look at the Jewish calendar. The Jewish day begins generally at nightfall, although in certain circumstances (in the Temple for example) it begins at daybreak. Either of these options are very natural times to start a day – either when you wake up or when you go to sleep. Similarly, the Jewish year starts either in the fall (Rosh Chodesh Tishrei) or in the spring (Rosh Chodesh Nisan). Both of these are natural choices as well, to start the year either at the beginning of the harvest, and the blossoming of the plant life, or at the end of the same cycle. The two parallel options are also expressed in the disagreement as to whether the world was created in Nisan or Tishrei (and to some extent continued in the Rashbam’s proposition that
perhaps the first day began at daybreak as well).
But if we look at the non-Jewish, Western concept of when to start the day and the year, it appears rather strange. Their day begins at midnight, and their year begins on the first of January. Why initiate a central unit of time in the middle of the dark? The day is dislocated from the natural human rhythms of rising and resting, and the year would seem to have no agricultural significance at all.
The answer to this may be found in a different perspective on nature, on the world we live in. While a day or a year beginning in the most inactive part of the cycle might seem strange to someone living within that cycle, to someone observing that cycle it is the most opportune time. There are far fewer changes occurring, and this allows the research to be more precise. This scientific approach, looking at the world from the outside, contrasts with the natural approach that involves only living in the natural order of the world. Who most represented the scientific approach to life? The Greeks.
The Greeks represented logic, science, and philosophy. I think it is not a coincidence that when the Jews were in their “dark ages”, the light of Greek civilization was at its highest. This was the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In a way, Greek civilization provided the first real competitor for Judaism’s monotheism. The philosophers rejected idolatry, but for different reasons than Judaism. They felt that logic was the source of ethics and morals, and that view led to their eventual conflict with Judaism (who they initially had great respect for).
Until that time Judaism represented the natural approach, not the scientific one. So why should the holiday representing victory over the Greeks seem to have such heavy themes of the scientific approach? Why at night? Why in the winter? In a sense, Channukah seems to even ignore Rosh Chodesh, where as all the other holidays are either connected to the new moon or the full moon. (Rav Yoel Bin-Nun discussed in a lecture how up until the time of Channukah, Rosh Chodesh had a very prominent role in Jewish life – with stores closed, the people assembled, etc. Antiochus made three decrees against the Jewish people – prohibiting the observance of Shabbat, circumcision and Rosh Chodesh. For Shabbat and circumcision the Jews were willing to sacrifice their lives, but for Rosh Chodesh they weren’t. And according to tradition, only what the Jews were willing to sacrifice for was able to endure – and the previous significance of Rosh Chodesh did not endure.)
Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin said that the Oral Law developed to its full potential after the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greek culture, a culture characterized by deep analysis and hair-splitting argument. These virtues were converted to a holy nature with the victory of Israel over Greece. This was the fulfillment of the verse “God will give beauty to Yefet and this beauty will dwell in the tents of Shem” (as per the gemara in Megillah 9b).
After the victory, through which we proved that “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God”, we could begin the successful integration of science, logic and philosophy into our natural world, into the world of the Written Law. Only then could the Oral Law truly begin to flourish. We didn’t need to concede to the Greeks, nor did we need to ignore them. Only from our position of military and intellectual strength could we succeed where others failed – the integration of our tradition with new logic and science.
Perhaps this is another way of understanding the famous statement by the Maharal that the eight days of Channukah represent the supernatural as opposed to the natural seven-day order of the week. In a sense, science is also supernatural, by allowing us to step out of the natural order of the world and observe it from the outside.
Only with our synthesis of the two worlds – the natural and the scientific, the traditional, agricultural Written Torah with the logical, philosophical concepts of machloket can the greatness of the Talmud be reached. Or in the language of the rabbis, both the tearing down mountains of “oker harim” (logic) and the mountain of “Sinai” (tradition) are needed to truly achieve the mantle of the Oral Law.
This is the message of Channukah. It comes to say that even though it is the middle of the winter, even though it is night, we come to light a candle to say that we are not bound by the natural order of the world. Even as Jews bound by the yoke of tradition and Torah, we can, through science and logic, break through to the supernatural. Through a synthesis of Torah and logic, we can achieve true intellectual freedom.