FACING THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Two features of the Jewish religion are sometimes in tension with each other:
1) We acknowledge God as the Author of Nature and Nature’s laws.
2) We came into existence in a world where we were the only ones to believe in one God. Therefore, the “others” in our world view were those who practiced the nature religions of Antiquity.

Today, in contrast to when our formative religious texts were written, the classical pagans who were the archetypal “non-Jew” for our biblical and religious ancestors are basically no more. Most of the animosity towards the Jew comes from the extremes of Left and Right in the political spectrum, often involving, on the one extreme, Islamism and those who apologize for it, and on the other extreme, Christian identity politics, melding with a non-theist worship of race.

With that in mind, we can revisit the age-old Jewish shunning of the end- of- December solstice season. The Rabbis told us to avoid all economic contact with idolaters within three days of their festivals, and defined the festivals in Roman terms:

The following are the festivals of the pagans: Kalenda, Setarnuna
[= Saturnalia], Empire Day, anniversaries of an Emperor’s birth,
accession and death…
(Mishnah, Tractate ‘Avodah Zarah 1:3)

The Talmud understands “calends” not in their original sense of “the first day of any Roman month”, but in a specific sense, the eight days from December 25th through Jan. 1st. (In other Roman sources, those days are called Compitalia). Saturnalia, conversely, are the eight days preceding that time span, Dec. 17th through 24th. Thus, for the Rabbis of the Talmud, the entire sixteen day period from Dec. 17th through Jan. 1st was a duo of pagan religious holidays.

Christians took over the Roman Empire, and Christmas absorbed Saturnalia, still leaving us as outsiders looking at a decorated world on December 25th. Of course, Jewish merchants did lots of business with Christian customers in the Christmas season, but that is not the same as selling wine to the Temple of Venus to be used in a pagan libation, or for that matter, to St. Brendan’s to be used in communion. We magnified Chanukkah so that our kids wouldn’t feel left out at the Christmas gift-binge. Ultimately, the only way to feel quite comfortable, as a Jew in a majority-Christian society, is to be engaged in our religion and genuinely tolerant of our neighbors, engaged in their own.

Whatever ambivalence remains in our community about being the minority at Christmas has not extended to New Year’s. Most Jews are comfortable celebrating New Year’s with parties.

Intriguingly, we find a Talmudic precedent for this. The Rabbis, acutely aware of the danger of losing one’s way while in close proximity to an alien majority, nonetheless found a way to honor the same cycles of nature as did the Pagans, albeit in a Jewish key:

We see this in a Rabbinic story about Adam after his expulsion from the Garden:

Adam saw the daylight growing progressively shorter from day to day [in the months following his creation and expulsion from the Garden of Eden]. He said, “Woe is me! Perhaps on account of my sin [of eating the forbidden fruit], the world is growing dark and is returning to its primordial chaos. This is the death sentence inflicted on me by Heaven [“On the day that you eat of its fruit, you will die”—Genesis 2 17.]. Adam proceeded to fast and pray for eight days. Once he saw the Winter Solstice, and observed the days growing progressively longer, he said, “This [variability in the length of the daylight] is the natural order of the world.” He ordained those eight days [following the solstice] as festive days. In the coming year, he made both the eight days preceding the solstice and those following it into holidays. He established them for the sake of Heaven, but they [i.e. his idolatrous descendants] dedicated them to idolatry.
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate ‘Avodah Zarah 8b)

Now that we have entered the last week leading up to the Winter Solstice, we might profitably remember that the natural cycles of the seasons, created by God, are an occasion for praising the Creator.

Enjoy the blessings of the season! It’s a Jewish thing to do—if we do it in a Jewish way.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Michael Panitz