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Chanukah: A Jewish new year

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y., Dec. 1 (JTA) — Chanukah is not only a holiday; it’s one of several Jewish new years. Judaism counts time by three synchronized clocks: the solar-lunar clock, the seven days of the week and the Torah-reading cycle. The solar seasons signify the three pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, which correspond with seasonal agricultural events. In these, Judaism tells time by correlating nature’s seasons with Israel’s paradigmatic events. The week, anchored by the Sabbath, commemorates creation of the world and signifies the restoration of Eden. And the Torah-reading cycle corresponds to the solar seasons and the lunar months, in which the narrative of the people of Israel is told and retold. The cycle begins with the Sabbath on which the story of creation is told — the Shabbat after Simchat Torah — and continues for a year. This Torah-reading cycle is augmented by special readings for a sequence of special Sabbaths, the first of which is the Shabbat that falls on Chanukah, the first Jewish festival following the beginning of the Torah-reading cycle. Special readings mark many Sabbaths during the year. Sometimes, an additional excerpt from the Torah is read; always, there is a special Haftarah reading, from the Prophets, connected to the significance of that day. These special Shabbat readings impart special meaning in addition to the regular rhythm of the Torah-reading cycle. What do these special Sabbaths signify, and how do they link nature’s time with the narrative of the Torah? The special readings are divided into three groups. First come the special Sabbaths from Chanukah through Shavuot, coinciding with the winter/spring rainy season in Israel. Then, in the summer, when the rain has ebbed and the season of desiccation has set in, there are the readings of the special Sabbaths of the three weeks of mourning, commencing on the 17th of Tammuz. The readings mark Israel’s rebellion against God, which brought about God’s abandonment of the Temple. Finally, When Israel’s rebellion is fully requited, there follow the seven Sabbaths of consolation and penitence. This third season, marked by the hope that the rainy season will return, begins in Elul, the month of penitence that precedes Rosh Hashanah. The third season carries through the Ten Days of Awe, which culminate in Yom Kippur and ends only with Sukkot, a harvest festival that holds the promise of renewal and the onset of the rainy season. The Torah-reading cycle is set forth in a rabbinic work, Pesikta d’Rab Kahana, which expounds upon this cycle: First comes the preparation of the Holy Temple, its dedication and its purification; second comes Passover and Shavuot; third comes the catastrophe of the destruction of the Temple in Tammuz and Av, the season of death; and finally comes the consolation of the month of penitence and the Days of Awe. The same cycle is encapsulated in Elul and Tishri — sin, punishment, atonement, consolation and renewal — as the life-cycle of nature and the rhythm of the Jewish experience correspond with each other. Similarly, the story of the Jewish people is retold in the story of the passage of the seasons. In the rainy season, we celebrate the dedication and repair of the Temple with Chanukah. That leads to the end of the rainy season and the celebration of spring, freedom and the exodus on Passover. It culminates 50 days later with the holiday of Shavuot, when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai. The next chapter of Israel’s story is told during the dry season of the year. This season of death marks the destruction of the Temple. Then comes the third chapter, the one of repentance and judgment, which leads to the renewal of the rainy season and the beginning of the cycle again. The story of the Jewish people is captured in this cycle: life, death and eventual resurrection. So why start with Chanukah and end with Sukkot? Because Chanukah, the celebration of the Holy Temple, is the sole possible starting point. Within the logic of the natural year embodied in the Temple rites, there is no other sequence that could have occurred, no other starting point for the Jewish people. Chanukah represents that starting point.Rabbi Jacob Neusner is research professor of religion and theology at Bard College. His most recent book is “Judaism: An Introduction.”