While observance of the solstices and equinoxes may not taught in Hebrew school, there is a long tradition of observing these moments drawn from the talmud. In Hebrew a solstice or equinox is called tekufah (תקופה) or plural tekufot (תקופות). The word means to cycle or turning.
The solstice is an astronomical event but in Jewish teachings the observance of the solstice may actually fall up to 14 days after the actual event. For example, think about the fact that the Winter solstice is called the “Tekufat Tevet” but in many years the solstice occurs during the month of Kislev. The reconciling of the astronomical event with the ”season” is the subject of much debate and discussion in halakhic texts.
As the winter solstice is connected to Hanukkah, which occurs during a dark moon nearest the winter solstice, the observance of the turning offers an opportunity to not only see this holiday through the lens of a winter solstice ritual but also to explore the impact on the movement of the start of the solstice season nearer or farther from Hanukkah.
There are actually many Jewish winter solstice tales and a great deal of lore around the Winter and other tekufot. For a variety of reasons, we’re not supposed to drink water stored in the house or in “vessels” on the first day of the tekufot. The belief is that the water is poisoned with blood. Each season seems to have its own reason for this. At the Winter Solstice it’s because that is the day Jepthah sacrificed his daughter.
The winter solstice seems to have to do with sight, or the lack thereof. Mountains become visible to Noah, and the patterns of nature become visible to Adam and Eve. Leviathan is associated with inner site. Jepthah, on the other hand, is blind to his own wrong doings. On the winter solstice the sun’s light begins to become stronger, and we too consider how to strengthen our vision.”The Jewish Book of Days by RK’Jill Hammer
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Some years, like occurred in 5771 /2010, the Winter Solstice provides with an extra opportunity because a full lunar eclipse will occur on this night that is visible in North and South America. On those darkest of nights, we won’t even have the moon to light our way. And whether there is a lunar eclipse or not the dark moon near Hanukkah, is the perfect time to start exploring how to honor the Winter Solstice in a Jewish way even when it doesn’t fall during Hanukkah!
My teacher and friend, RK’Jill Hammer has created several Winter Solstice rituals you can try and I’ve updated my Hanukkah Seder so there is a prayer for just lighting candles at Tekufat Tevet when it is separate from Hanukkah. The seder tells many of the stories associated with the Solstice and Hanukkah in Judaism. If you choose to use it for the Solstice, you might want to add in the story of Jepthah’s daughter.
Lastly, I love this poem that Rav Kohenet Jill Hammer created for Hanukkah and it’s perfect for the Winter Solstice. While she may have had a tune in mind, I didn’t know it – so I created my own. You can listen to that below.
Light born from darkness,
dawn born from night,
hope born from quiet
waiting for the light.
Spring born from winter,
spark struck from sun,
strength born from calling
for the spring to come.
Tonight the dark is waiting,
longing to be gone.
Tonight the earth is turning,
facing toward the dawn. (RK’Jill Hammer)