Tekufat Tevet – The Winter Solstice

Tekufah Tevet from the Beit Alpha Synagogue Mosaic
Tekufah Tevet from the Beit Alpha Synagogue Mosaic

Most people when discussing the tekufot align them with directly with the astronomical solstices or equinoxes, but according to the Jewish Encyclopedia they may actually fall up to 14 days after this.  For example, think about the fact that the Winter solstice is called the “Tekufat Tevet.”  This year (5771 / 2010) the Winter Solstice actually falls in the month of Tevet, but this is not always the case.

Many years, the Winter Solstice actually appears in the month of Kislev, and aligns with closely with Hanukkah, which occurs during the dark moon nearest the winter solstice.  If you look at the Gregorian calendar for 2000-2009, only five of those ten years had the Winter solstice falling in Tevet.  Want to see for yourself?  2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009) So on the years when the Winter Solstice falls in Kislev, when do you you celebrate Tekufat Tevet?  I say we celebrate the solstice on the solstice.  It’s an astrological event, not a subjective one.

“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.”  (From the Jewish Book of Days by RK’Jill Hammer)

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.

This year, 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 this darkest of nights, we won’t even have the moon to light our way.  It’s 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 swap the story out the story of Judith for the story of Jepthah’s daughter — or add this story in. [update: 12/23/2010 — added this great Jewish Winter Solstice Tale video from Punk Torah.]

Lastly, I love this chant that RK’Jill created for Hanukkah.  I think it’s perfect for the Winter Solstice and will be using this year.  She created the words, and since I didn’t know what her tune was — I made up my own!  You can listen to that below.  (I had a cold when I recorded it, so that’s why I sound all stuffed up!)

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)

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