According to the Talmud, when primordial Adam got to his first winter, he saw the days getting shorter and shorter. He thought that eventually the hours of the day would shrink until there was only darkness, and his response was to fast at this distressing development. After 8 days however, he reached the winter solstice and the days then began to lengthen. In his relief he established 8 days of feasting to celebrate, but the next year all 16 days became holidays of joy because the first man understood that this was the way of the world, for the days to shorter and lengthen in an unending cycle.
The ancient rabbis, in Avodah Zara 8a, link these 16 days to the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Kalenda, but Professor Ishay Rosen-Zvi of Tel-Aviv University speculates that this story is actually the origin of Hanukkah. Jews celebrate light returning to the world by lighting the menorah and adding one candle each night. Only later, after the Maccabean Revolt, did the holiday become connected to the defeat of the Greeks and the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days.
If Professor Rosen-Zvi is correct, then Hanukkah in some ways is about humanity’s curiosity about, and connection to, our place in the universe. We may not realize it, but our lives depend on the fact that we live on a rock spinning in space at a tilt of 23.5 degrees while we travel around the sun. These facts account for our days, seasons and years, and if anyone of the parameters changed there would be a huge disruption to our planet.
So maybe it is appropriate that just before Hanukkah this year, the man who ran Israel’s space security program, Haim Eshed, announced that aliens do in fact exist, are part of a galactic federation, and have been in contact with the U.S. and Israeli governments. They have a joint base with humans on Mars and have kept news of their existence secret in order not to create panic because earth is not ready for the information.
The story generated a lot of laughs, including former Star Trek actor George Takei’s response – “Galactic Federation, you say?” – but many people believe that aliens exist, even sober scientists. After all, in the last few decades researchers have discovered thousands of planets in the galaxy. It’s hard to believe that life didn’t originate somewhere else in the universe.
The current head of the Israel Space Agency came to the defense of Eshed, stating that he is a respected member of the scientific community and extraterrestrial life is probable, but that his claims about aliens go a little too far. This seems to me a generous reading since Eshed makes very specific arguments about where the aliens are and who they have spoken to (including the president of the United States), not just some general thoughts.
Who knows if Eshed is right, but it is always fun to speculate, and Israel continues to make progress in space because of his pioneering efforts. SpaceIl, the company that sent a lander to the moon last April, announced a new mission to our closest neighbor with three spacecraft this time.
Maybe Adam also wondered about aliens when he looked up at the night sky. After all, the question “are we alone” has a different feel when you are literally the only human being on earth. This Hanukkah as we again celebrate the return of light to our world, we can also take a moment to consider, like the first human being, our place in the vast expanse of the cosmos.