It shouldn’t be news to anyone with a pulse that the first day of Chanukah coincides with Thanksgiving this year. What do we call it? Someone actually trademarked the word Thanksgivukkah ®. So we could try Thanukkah. Or how about Chanksgiving?
A lot has been written about the culinary options made possible by the coinciding of two gastronomically-rich holiday traditions.
It probably should not surprise us that some folks have cashed-in. This is America after all, where there is nothing than cannot be turned into a business opportunity. You can buy Thanksgivukkah greeting cards, t-shirts, songs on iTunes, and so on. Then, there is the nine year old boy who designed the “Menurkey” and raised almost $50,000 on Kickstarter to get it produced.
On deeper inspection, it turns out that there is more than just a date that ties Chanukkah and Thanksgiving together.
First, the date. The Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar hybrid. The months follow the cycle of the moon, but in order to ensure that the holidays occur in the right seasons, we have to add occasional “leap-months.” Nearly two thousand years ago, the Rabbis came up with the system that we use today. There is a nineteen year cycle in which we add a thirteenth month during seven out of every nineteen years. That keep Passover in the Spring, the High Holidays in the Fall, and Chanukkah in the Winter.
The earliest possible date for Chanukkah is November 28. The latest possible date for Thanksgiving is November 28. This year, those dates happen to coincide. The last time they coincided was 1861, but Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until Lincoln declared it in 1863. That makes this year the first time it has ever happened and, as it turns out, the last time it will happen for approximately the next 77,000 years.
When they set up the calendar. the Rabbis were remarkably accurate, but not totally. Averaged out, The Jewish year is a touch longer than the solar year of 365.25 days. Every one thousand years, the two calendars diverge by four days. The last year that Chanukkah will occur on November 28 is in the year 2146, but on none of the occasions between now and then will the 28th be a Thursday. After 2146, the calendar divergence will make the earliest possible date for Chanukkah November 29. It will take 77,000 years to work its way around the calendar, unless something is done. That “something” will require a bunch of Rabbis to get together to agree on how to adust the Jewish calendar so that the holidays remain in the correct season. And if that happens, it will truly be a “miracle.” I don’t expect it to take place any time in my rabbinic career.
But there is more that connects these two holidays than just the date. Much of the thematic convergence occurs through the relationship of these two holidays to a third Jewish holiday: Succot.
Let’s talk about Thanksgiving first. The first recorded Thanksgiving took place in 1621 in Plymouth Rock after the first successful harvest by the Pilgrims who had just arrived that year. They had come to America from Europe to flee religious persecution. They were searching for a new home in which they could practice their faith in freedom. First-hand accounts report that the meal was attended by fifty three Pilgrims and approximately ninety members of the Wampanoag tribe.
These were deeply religious people who read their Bibles closely. They knew all about the Torah’s harvest festivals, in which Israelites marked the beginning and end of the agricultural cycle through celebrations of gratitude. While they might not have literally modelled that first Thanksgiving on Succot, the idea of celebrating a successful harvest in the fall through a sacred meal was deeply rooted in their religious consciousness. For the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving was a religious holiday with Biblical precedents. For modern-day Americans who have inherited this holiday, the meaning of Thanksgiving is very much about religious freedom, the fall harvest, and gratitude.
These are themes that are shared with Chanukkah. The Maccabees in Israel had similar experiences to the Pilgrims in Europe. A dominating Syrian Greek empire offered extremely attractive alternatives to traditional Jewish practice. Not only was assimilation widespread, the Greeks sought to forcibly impose their culture by outlawing some of the most important Jewish practices like Shabbat, Torah study, and circumcision. They also took over the Temple, offering pagan sacrifices at the most important place of Jewish worship. This is the first time in recorded human history that an attempt was made to eradicate a particular culture and religion. It is the first record of attemped genocide.
It was working. Jews were abandoning the Torah and embracing Greek ways of life. In 167 BCE, the Maccabees revolted. They fought to undo the decrees and reestablish Jewish control in Israel. When they recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple in 164 BCE, the Maccabees declared a celebration to give thanks to God. It is not surprising that they would want to do this. Most successful independence movements have an Independence Day. Let’s look at how the Maccabees chose to celebrate their victory, in their own words. The Second Book of Maccabees, written in 124 BCE, describes the first Chanukkah.
They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So carrying lulavs… they offered hymns of praise (Hallel) to God who had brought to pass the purification of His own place. (II Maccabees 10:6-7)
The victorious Maccabees, by their own account, modeled Chanukkah after Succot. It is a particularly appropriate holiday for a few reasons. Succot is not only an autumn agricultural holiday celebrating the completion of a successful summer harvest. It also has an historical dimension. The succot that we dwell in symbolize the temporary dwelling places that our ancestors used during their wanderings in the wilderness, during the time of their escape from slavery into freedom. Succot symbolizes religious freedom.
Succot is also connected to the dedication of the Temple. When Solomon completed the construction of the first Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem, he inaugurated it during an eight-day celebration that coincided with Succot. We will read about it in the haftarah next week.
King Solomon gathered every person of Israel in the month of Eitanim (Tishrei) on the holiday (Sukkot) in the seventh month… for God had said, ‘I have built a House for My eternal residence.’ (I Kings 8:2,12)
For Solomon, Succot did not symbolize impermanence and vulnerability. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. Succot was about the establishment of a new, permanent home for God.
When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, it made sense on several levels to model their celebration after Succot. First of all, they had missed Succot three months earlier. And secondly, Succot was a tremendous precedent to use for a rededication ceremony for the Temple. Succot, therefore, serves as a bridge that connects Chanukkah and Thanksgiving, regardless of when they happen to occur on the calendar. Both holidays express themes of gratitude – for a successful harvest, for religious freedom, and for home.
Another reason for which I am grateful that Chanukkah is so early this year is that it means it is as far away from Christmas as possible. Chanukkah and Christmas have absolutely nothing in common, and it is so unfortunate that so many elements of Christmas observance in America have been assimilated into Chanukkah.
This year’s earliness of Chanukkah offers a reprieve from the intensity of the commercialization of the holiday. In contrast, while Thanksgiving has succumbed to commercialism to some degree, it seems to me that, more than any other national holiday, it is the one that is still observed in a meaningful way by the widest number of people. Americans of all religious and cultural backgrounds really do express gratitude on Thanksgiving. I would much rather have a Chanukkah influenced by Thanksgiving than by Christmas.
This year, we are blessed to be able to celebrate these two holidays on the same day: The Festival of Lights, celebrating the Jewish people’s survival against religious persecution; and the festival of Thanksgiving, expressing the gratitude that people of all backgrounds, and of all religions, can enjoy the blessings of our great country
To all of us: Happy Thanksgivukkah!