“Do you know why I call you ante lucem? It is a Latin term which means “the vigil of light” – that is, before the dawn. At the hour of your death, when it will seem as if the last light has gone out within you, upon you and in you will dawn a great light: the great Light of God!” —Rabbi Eugenio Zolli in his spiritual autobiography Before the Dawn

    Letter #159, 2021, Monday, November 29: Rabbi Zolli on Hanukkah

    I received a request from my friend “Dave Leonard” – a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a great admirer of Rabbi Eugenio Zolli – to publish a few paragraphs from Zolli’s great work Before the Dawn. These paragraphs here today are meant to be an appreciation of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, which began yesterday, November 28.

    Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is a Jewish festival commemorating the recovery of Jerusalem and subsequent rededication of the Second Temple at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century B.C. (link)

    Eugenio Maria Zolli (27 September 1881‒2 March 1956), born Israel Anton Zoller, was an Austrian by birth, and an Italian doctorate professor of philosophy. Until his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism in February 1945, Zolli was the chief rabbi in Rome, Italy’s Jewish community from 1940 to 1945. After the war, he taught philosophy at a number of institutions throughout Rome including the Sapienza University of Rome and Pontifical Biblical Institute. Because of his conversion, his name was removed from the list of the Rabbis of Rome’s synagogue, something his daughter felt deeply wounded by, she told me.

    Zolli is noted for his admiration of Pope Pius XII during World War II, who gave support and shelter to Zolli and other Jews during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Italy from 1943 to 1944. It was later revealed that Zolli hid in a number of places in both Rome and the Vatican City State.

 Rabbi Eugenio Zolli and the cover of his very profound book.

Before the Dawn

    In his spiritual autobiography, Israel Eugenio Zolli explains the title of the book, Before the Dawn.

    At the end of the Chapter titled “Before the Dawn,” Zolli is recalling his family observance of Hanukkah when he was a boy: “more than sixty years have passed since I lost the pleasure of being a child.”

    Zolli recalls watching the flames of the candles flickering and dying (pages 116 to 118)…

    Only “the blue was left, recalling heaven to me. We were alone, the flame and I; it spoke to my heart – the heart of a child is so much more sensitive than the hearts of grown-ups.”

    It said: “I understand you, I look within you, I know what you think. You share my spasms with sorrow; you follow with sympathy every movement of mine toward heaven, and every sinking of mine into obscurity. It is not in vain that you are called Israel; he who fought for something divine.”

    The candle continues speaking to Zolli’s heart:

    “Everywhere we give our life in memory of the struggle of Israel for its existence, his liberty of conscience, his ideals…. In times of sorrow as in times of joy, we, the little flames of the hanukkah, come quietly, serene and gentle, into the temples and the homes of the Hebrews to declare everywhere the great truth: ‘The Light of Israel cannot, must not be put out; it always revives because the soul of Israel is undying.’”

    Zolli, whose name is Israel, was not a Zionist in any political sense.

    Here, in the early 1950s, he is not speaking of a new modern secular political state in the Middle East, he is speaking clearly of the Mystical Israel, the People of God.

    He is anticipating the Dogmatic Constitution of Vatican Two, Lumen Gentium, which emphasizes that the Mystical Body is the universal People of God: Mystical Israel is the Church.

    Throughout this book, Zolli explains that he has not departed from Israel, but entered into its Mystical fullness through Baptism.

    Zolli concludes this chapter with the final words spoken by the candle to his heart:

    “Do you know why I call you ante lucem? It is a Latin term which means “the vigil of light” – that is, before the dawn. At the hour of your death, when it will seem as if the last light has gone out within you, upon you and in you will dawn a great light: the great Light of God!”

    Old and worn from decades of suffering, Zolli wrote this autobiographical testament at the end of his life.

    The title, Before the Dawn, and the ending of the chapter with the same name, are beautifully and poetically summarized in the “Author’s Preface” at the front of the book:

Author’s Preface

    The figure of the crucified Christ over the altar symbolizes the greatest sorrow the world knows. Truth is crucified; the highest Wisdom, the Wisdom of God, is crucified. Charity is crucified; Love is crucified; God is crucified in His Son.

    From the Church of Christ the King, a king crucified, can be heard the plaintive chant of the Via Crucis. The Pieta is veiled; a veil is upon Mary’s face. Nothing is seen or heard except Christ crucified.

    O all you who pass by the way . . .

    Divinity and Humanity are crucified . . .

    And yet, Christ crucified, humiliated, outraged, and derided is the highest expression of the Resurrection. In Christ, every sorrow becomes pure and holy; to every wanderer, and to all who die in Him, Christ says: “Arise and walk!” And I obey. With a heart filled with sadness, I rise and follow in the footsteps of Christ.

Eugenio Zolli

Rome, Italy; 1954

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