Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Seven Crazy Nights!

BZ posits a very interesting political and religious question in his post about Jerusalem and when and how long to celebrate Purim in the modern city.

This isn't an issue for the Reform Jew for she celebrates a single day of the Holiday. She joyously engages in Sukkot for seven days, spends one day in prayer and introspective thought during Rosh Hashanah and takes Lactaid for one night of Shavout. However when it comes Chanukah, she lights the candles for all eight nights. Why?

I could guess it has to do with American culture of the "Holiday Season" or perhaps it is lack of education. However an academic and thoughtful answer would be nice...

Rabbis? You got something?


BZ said...

Thanks for the link! I'll respond (relatively) briefly, but I'm happy to clarify anything in more detail upon request.

Reform Jews (and Israelis, and one underutilized option for Reconstructionist and Conservative communities) observe the biblical pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot) for the number of days prescribed in the Torah, while most non-Israeli non-Reform Jews observe an extra day. (Reasons available upon request.)

The reason for observing two days of Rosh Hashanah is different from the other holidays (also available upon request), and therefore it is observed for 2 days in Israel (even among Israeli Reform Jews), and non-Israeli Reform communities are split between observing 1 day (since that's what it is in the Torah) and 2 days (for the same reason that it's observed for 2 days in Israel).

Purim and Chanukah are totally different. They're not "biblical" holidays (yes, Purim is in the book of Esther, but it's not in the Torah), so the same issues don't apply.

In a normal year, *everyone* observes 1 day of Purim; it's just a question of which day. In most of the world, Purim is observed on the 14th of Adar; in cities that were walled at the time of Yehoshua bin Nun (such as Jerusalem), Purim is observed on the 15th of Adar. (And only on the 15th. In Jerusalem, the 14th of Adar isn't Purim at all, it's just a regular day.) This is based on Esther 9:16-19 : according to the story, the Jews of Shushan were fighting for an extra day, so they celebrated a day later, and now walled cities follow their model. This isn't split by denomination -- Reform communities in Jerusalem observe Purim on the 15th of Adar like everyone else.
(I said "in a normal year" because this year will be different because 15 Adar is on Shabbat. Details available on request.)

As for Chanukah:
First I should explain Sukkot. In the Torah (and in Reform and Israeli practice) there are 7 days of Sukkot, followed by 1 day of Shemini Atzeret, for a total of 8 days. The common non-Israeli non-Reform practice adds an extra day to each, so there are 8 days of Sukkot and 2 days of Shemini Atzeret, for a total of 9 days. (Yes, you read that right. There's a day of overlap. The 8th day of the combined holiday is both a possible day of Sukkot and the 1st day of Shemini Atzeret, so some non-Israeli non-Reform Jews have the custom of eating in the sukkah on this day just in case. The 2-day-yom-tov people do "Simchat Torah" on the 2nd day of Shemini Atzeret (the 9th day of the whole thing), while Reform and Israeli Jews do "Simchat Torah" on the one day of Shemini Atzeret (the 8th day of the whole thing).)

So where did 8 days of Chanukah come from? Yes, there's the story (found in the Talmud) about the oil lasting for 8 days, but the more likely reason is the story (found in the book of Maccabees) that the Jews didn't get to observe Sukkot while they were off fighting, so when they rededicated the Temple, they observed a 8-day festival to make up for the 8 days of Sukkot + Shemini Atzeret that they had missed. (There are a number of connections between Sukkot/SA and Chanukah, e.g. saying hallel for 8 days; i recently also heard that Chanukah is the end of the olive harvest, paralleling Sukkot as a harvest holiday and explaining the origin of the focus on olive oil, etc.) So the question isn't why Reform Jews observe 8 days; the question is why non-Israeli non-Reform Jews (who ordinarily add an extra day) don't observe *9* days! And the answer is probably that the events of the Chanukah story took place in Israel (where Sukkot+SA is 8 days), so it makes sense that a commemoration of those events would also be 8 days.

Liberal Jew said...

Thanks! That was great! I knew most of the stuff about Sukkot and Chanukah, but I figured the seven days of Sukkot should mirror therefore seven days of Chanukah.

Thanks again.