These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Hallel: a Jewish response to the axial tilt

Posted on December 19, 2014 by Jonah P.

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Jonah PHumans are fundamentally tropical animals. When we ventured out from the equator where our species originated, we survived only by bringing the tropics with us. In our schools, cars, and homes we crank up the thermostat well into the 70s (that’s 20s Celsius for the non-Americans.) We must indulge in humidifiers, moisturizers, and lip balm to get through the cold comfortably.

This makes winter a curious, difficult season for us. In the tropics, the yearly tilt of the earth goes unnoticed. Days are always the same length. Outside of earth’s lush waistline, however, we do notice the tilt. And we inhabitants are moved with it, tilting away from the sun’s light and those long summer days, leaning into darkness and cold.

When our days shorten, our entire bodies respond. Our hormonal system, the secret behind many of our mysterious moods and habits, reacts. For most of us, the change is small, noticeable but tolerable: a slump in our energy, a dampening of our spirits. For some of us, however, the change is dramatic: an inability to get out of bed, a total loss of joy. The latter reaction, in today’s time, is understood as the pathology of seasonal affective disorder, aptly acronymed SAD.

Long before phototherapy boxes could be bought on Amazon and shipped to any nether region of the world, many cultures reacted to winter’s reduced sunlight with festivals of light. While the flame of a candle provides no substitute for the hormone-stimulating UV rays of the sun, the visual metaphor is a powerful one. With Hannukah in particular we increase the light each night as we march steadily into darkness.

In addition to the better-known practice of kindling a menorah, we have a special and arguably more important tradition during these dimly-lit winter days of Hannukah, that of reciting Hallel. When Rambam discusses the laws of Hannukah, it is this aspect of the season which he highlights. After an almost perfunctory mention of lighting candles, Rambam devotes the rest of the chapter to the recitation of these special verses of praise. Out of the 14 laws of Hannukah in the Mishneh Torah, in fact, a whopping 10 concern Hallel.

The Jewish response to winter is thus a defiant increase of lights in the face of darkness, and a recitation of thanks when our moods would otherwise have us refrain from gratitude.

While I would never posit Hannukah as a cure for the winter blues (and certainly not for SAD), it is worth mentioning that expressing gratitude is, unsurprisingly, another tool to protect against depression. Expressions of gratitude can activate the hormones that help us feel strong attachments to fellow humans and to God, decreasing perceptions of loneliness and vulnerability while increasing feelings of belonging and safety.

If you’re like me and are a bit of a holiday scrooge, you may have a hard time relating to the commercialized, mandatory joy of the season. If that’s the case, I encourage you to find meaning in the opportunity to say Hallel and to exercise the skill of gratitude in precisely the time of the year when it is, for many of us, the most difficult to do so.