CHANUKAH THANKSGIVING 5774
What a great holiday weekend this is: Thanksgiving and Chanukah at the same time. Wow! The last time Chanukah was as early as November 28th was 1899! But it was not a Thursday and Thanksgiving on that year would have been on November 23rd. The last time November 28th—the latest Thanksgiving can be and the earliest Chanukah can be— was Thursday and Chanukah was in 1861. However, Thanksgiving wasn’t established as a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln until 2 years later! And the next time the 1st day of Hanukkah will happen on Thanksgiving—Thursday, November 28th—won’t be till the year 79,811. That’s 77,798 years from now. Besides Barney Schoenberg, who else do you think will still be around? This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience so let’s enjoy this most unusual holiday weekend by celebrating all that Chanukah and Thanksgiving have to teach us.
For history buffs I would add that although this is the 1st time Chanukah and the regular established Thanksgiving holiday have coincided, there were 3 other times in American history when Chanukah coincided with a special thanksgiving. That happened when George Washington declared special days of thanksgiving during the Revolutionary War. On those days, all Americans celebrated a Chanukah Thanksgiving of sorts—thanking and praising Gd for their freedom.
Many have had a lot of fun trying to figure out what to call this holiday weekend and what to eat. Most people are calling it “Thanksgivingkah” because it’s much easier to pronounce than “Changiving!” What to eat? How about combining Menorah and turkey to give you “Menurkey?” Some have suggested making sweet potato latkes or pumpkin latkes served with cranberry sauce. Others simply suggest eating latkes instead of stuffing with their turkey and sufganiyot, jelly donuts, instead of pumpkin pie. For me if you have a fryer it seems the easiest thing might be to deep fry your turkey in oil which, of course, is a great southern dish. That way you can cover both holidays at the same time—oil for Chanukah and turkey for Thanksgiving.
What’s so special about the juxtaposition of Chanukah and Thanksgiving is that they have similar origins and themes and are, therefore, a much more perfect fit than Chanukah and Christmas. And for us as Jewish Americans, a Chanukah Thanksgiving can help us appreciate how truly special America is.
What’s the similar origin? Both Thanksgiving and Chanukah are based upon the Jewish holiday of Sukkot—the fall harvest Thanksgiving festival. The Pilgrims, who celebrated the 1st Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621were devout Christians whose Thanksgiving celebration was inspired by the harvest feast of Tabernacles—namely Sukkot—found in the Bible. What is often overlooked is that Chanukah is also patterned after Sukkot. In fact it was originally called, “Sukkot of the month of Kislev.” The Book of Second Maccabees relates: They kept 8 days with gladness in the manner of the feast of Sukkot, remembering how not long before, during the feast of Sukkot, they were wandering in the mountains and in the caves like wild beasts. Therefore bearing lulav and etrog they offered up hymns of thanksgiving. They ordained also for all the Jews that they should keep these days every year. So the original Chanukah was a belated Sukkot celebration and that—in addition to the miracle of oil which lasted 8 days—is also why Chanukah is for 8 days, because Sukkot is 8 days.
What’s so unusual about celebrating Chanukah with Thanksgiving is that we have been so accustomed to celebrating it around Christmas, which has influenced our celebrations—like a gift every night. In reality, Chanukah and Christmas—unlike Thanksgiving—are thematically opposed. Chanukah celebrates the rededication to Torah through both a war against the Syrian Greeks and a civil war against the Hellenizers of Jewish life. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, whom Paul and the early church fathers understood as replacing the authority of the Torah. On the other hand, Thanksgiving and Chanukah—like their predecessor Sukkot—all share the theme of giving thanks.
What do we Jews in America have to be thankful for? Plenty! And the confluence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving this year gives it an even greater emphasis. Both Chanukah and Thanksgiving celebrate religious freedom. The Syrian Greeks tried to force their pagan religion upon the Jews and—although outnumbered—they rebelled. The Pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom from the tyranny of English intolerance. And, although in both cases they endured many hardships and losses, they set aside a special time to give thanks and praise to Gd.
Because of the Maccabees’ valiant fight, Judaism survived. The Pilgrims valiant struggle for religious freedom planted the seeds of religious tolerance in America that enabled Judaism to survive and flourish 300 years later. You see, after the Inquisition of 1492 in Spain and then Portugal and the Chemilniki massacres in Poland and Eastern Europe in 1648-9, Jews were desperate to find any place that would just let them live as Jews in freedom and security. And that they miraculously found in America.
The Chanukah story is a story of the miraculous victory of the few over the many and the miracle of the oil that lasted for 8 days in the rededication of the Temple. The Pilgrim story is one of miraculous survival against a bitter winter and the forces of nature that they were ill-equipped to handle. And the miracle of the Pilgrims’ survival led to the survival of the Jewish people! Let me explain.
In 1654 23 Jews landed in New Amsterdam, which 10 years later became New York. How did they get there? A number of Jews had fled the Inquisition and had found a safe haven in Brazil which was then a Dutch colony. The Dutch, because of the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church, were more tolerant and allowed Jews to practice their faith. However, the Portuguese soon conquered Brazil and brought the Inquisition with them and so the Jews were forced to flee.
Here comes the miracle. Some Jews fled to the Caribbean and established communities in Curacao and St. Thomas. You can still visit their synagogues which are 350 years old with their original dirt floors. One boat of 23 Jews was captured by pirates…which in turn were captured by a French man-of-war ship…which deposited their unwanted cargo—Jews—at the nearest port—New Amsterdam.
The hand of Gd was clearly guiding these Jews to establish a community in New York and North America that would eventually welcome millions of Jews escaping persecution and poverty. If not for American Jews, what would have been left of Judaism after the Holocaust? If not for America, who would have stopped Hitler from finishing the job?
This may sound very strange coming from a rabbi who is a Zionist and fully committed to the State of Israel. It is my firm conviction and belief that while Israel is the Holy Land of the Jews, whose mission is to bring the understanding of Gd and His Torah to mankind from Zion their Holy Land, America is the Holy Land of mankind.
I believe that Gd has guided America to be a country, unique in the history of the world. In a sense, because of its diversity of peoples from all over the world, America is the world’s country—a microcosm of humankind. And because it is a free country, its citizens have used their unique talents and cultures to create and innovate and grow the greatest country the world has ever known. And in doing so it has allowed the potential of humankind to burst forth as never before to improve the lives of all and keep the world safe.
It’s not that America doesn’t have its problems and issues. It does many times over. But the unique makeup of its citizenry has proven again and again—and Gd willing will continue to prove—that it can meet any challenge.
That is why I’m so excited to celebrate Thanksgiving and Chanukah together this year. It has never happened before and will never happen again in our lifetimes! Besides, what’s the good this year of giving a combined Chanukah Christmas gift when this year Christians will be celebrating Christmas while Jews will be beginning their cleaning for Pesach! Happy Thanksgivingkah. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis