From the Sources: Happy Herod’s Day

by Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – The first-century C.E. Latin satirist Persius Flaccus devoted one of his poems to the theme that even persons who are ostensibly free will often enslave themselves to follies of their own making. A blatant example was the inclination to pursue silly superstitions, as exemplified by the widespread popularity of bizarre Jewish customs. A case in point: “When the Day of Herod comes round,… the lamps wreathed with violets and ranged round the greasy window-sills emit their thick clouds of smoke.”

Was Persius describing a particular Jewish practice, or was he merely rehashing a hodgepodge of stereotypical customs that had come to be associated with the Jews of Rome? The Jewish calendar contains no “Day of Herod,” nor is it likely that they would bestow such an honour on the infamous tyrant. On the other hand, Herod the Great was world-renowned as ruler of Judea, and it is conceivable that outsiders would treat his name as a generic identifier of the Jewish nation. Christian texts refer to his grandson, Persius’s contemporary, as “Herod Agrippa.”

For modern readers it might appear more plausible to associate Persius’ festive lamps with Shabbat, particularly as he goes on to mock the Jews’ consumption of fish—long recognized as a Sabbath delicacy—and mumbling incomprehensible prayers. We should bear in mind, however, that in ancient pre-electric times the kindling of candles had not yet become a recognizable ritual, but served primarily to provide illumination; hence its association with the day of rest would not have been obvious to Persius or his contemporaries.

Persius’s verses have provoked considerable debate among historians. Some propose that Herod like other ancient potentates, instituted a holiday to celebrate his birthday or the beginning of his reign.

Among the scholars who have weighed in on this question, a surprising number have tried to identify Herod’s Day as Hanukkah. More than the Sabbath, that holiday was marked from an early time as the “feast of light.” Persius’s contemporary Josephus Flavius was the first to designate Hanukkah in that way, suggesting that it symbolized how the Jews’ right to worship was “brought to light.”

At first sight this thesis sounds patently absurd. After all, Herod was the implacable foe of the Hasmonean dynasty whose exploits are celebrated on Hanukkah. He was haunted throughout his reign by the spectre of the Hasmoneans whom he always regarded—with much justification—as his rivals for the loyalties of the Jewish nation. He was zealous to the point of paranoia in assassinating all vestiges of the Hasmonean royal family, including his beloved wife Mariamne. In light of these facts it seems impossible to imagine how anyone, even an ignorant Roman satirist, could confuse Hanukkah with a “Day of Herod.”

Nevertheless, there are a number of circumstances that might indicate a tangible connection between Herod and Hanukkah. Some argue that the despot instituted a new celebration precisely in order to eclipse the more modest achievement of his Hasmonean predecessors who had rededicated the Temple after its defilement—but unlike Herod, had done nothing to enhance the relatively modest edifice inherited from Ezra and Nehemiah.

Like the Hasmoneans, Herod celebrated the completion of his Temple with a joyous dedication festival at which countless offerings were sacrificed. In recounting this event, Josephus commented on the auspicious correspondence of events, that the completion of the Temple’s construction coincided with the anniversary of the beginning of Herod’s reign.

Although Josephus does not provide us with the precise date, he records elsewhere that Herod was officially appointed King of Judea by Antony and the Roman Senate in the middle of winter 40 B.C.E.  Given that it was on the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, the day before Hanukkah, that the prophet Haggai announced the establishment of the second Temple, we may note how convenient it would have been for Herod to link his own crowning achievement to that auspicious date.

This has led some scholars to speculate that, rather than attempting to suppress Hanukkah as a subversive outpouring of pro-Hasmonean sympathies, Herod instead chose to appropriate it by redirecting it to a commemoration of his own accomplishments. Accordingly, the transformed festival was so strongly associated with his reinterpretation that it came to be known in some circles as “Herod’s Day.” (Prior to this time, the sources state that Hanukkah was celebrated in a manner analogous to Sukkot, with the waving of palm-fronds expressing the victory over their enemies.)

As it happens, light and fire festivals were celebrated during this season in the Roman empire. After all, the winter solstice marks the turning point at which the daylight hours cease diminishing and the days begin to lengthen. This occasion was celebrated as the birthday of the sun god, and the lighting of lamps or tapers was a common feature of those rituals. If we bear in mind Herod’s well-known sympathies for Rome and its culture, it is fully consistent with his character and policy that he would try to encourage the Jews to observe a winter festival like those that were being observed by loyal Roman subjects throughout the empire.

While the Jewish lunar calendar could not include a date that would always coincide with the winter solstice, it is a convenient coincidence that the solstice occurs on December 25 of the Julian solar calendar and Hanukkah begins on the twenty-fifth of the lunar month Kislev. Similar patterns were discernible in other Roman provinces, as local winter festivals were reinterpreted to correspond with the official birthday of the solar deity, and the lighting of fires or candles was incorporated into the seasonal festivities. The progressive strengthening of the light, which we emulate when we increase the numbers of the candles each night, is consistent with the themes of the Roman rituals honouring the prevailing of light over darkness.

And so, in the interest of cultural pluralism, let us extend our warmest season’s greetings to devotees of the ancient despot as they gather in the smoky aura of their “Herod Day” lamps.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News. 

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