Thanksgiving turkey 521.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This year, American Jews had a once-in-a-lifetime experience – Hanukka and
Thanksgiving coincided and were celebrated together.
They could eat
latkes with their turkey and sufganiyot with their pumpkin pie, a rare
What they may not have realized was that the two holidays –the
American Thanksgiving and the Jewish Hanukka – have a common origin. Both are
derived from the biblical feast of Succot.
The English pilgrims, who
originated the idea of a Thanksgiving celebration in the fall season, were
devout, believing Christians who derived their inspiration from the harvest
feast found in Scripture, the Feast of Tabernacles. What we often forget is that
Hanukka, too, is patterned after Succot. Its early name was actually the Succot
of the month of Kislev. The apocryphal book of II Maccabees relates that “they
kept eight days with gladness in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles,
remembering how not long before, during the Feast of Tabernacles, they were
wandering in the mountains and in the caves like wild beasts. Therefore bearing
wands wreathed with leaves and fair boughs, and palms also, they offered up
hymns of thanksgiving… They ordained also… for all the Jews that they should
keep these days every year.”
Since Succot was the last festival they had
not been able to observe in the Temple, and remembering that it was also the
time when Solomon had dedicated his Temple, they celebrated the rededication of
the newly cleansed sanctuary with a Succot-like festival, including even the use
of the lulav. The lighting of the menorah was a major part of the ceremony so
that in subsequent years it was the lighting of lights that became the primary
mitzva of the celebration.
The connection to Succot explains two major
things about Hanukka – the fact that it is eight days long and the fact that we
recite the complete Hallel on it each day, since that was the practice on
Succot. The Books of Maccabees do not mention the miracle of the cruse of oil.
That appears for the first time centuries later in the Talmud, Shabbat 21b. It
may well have originated because the ancient prayer Al Hanissim begins with
giving thanks for miracles, but does not mention any miracle in the sense of a
As Jonathan Goldstein wrote in his commentary to
Maccabees, for the rabbis at that time, after the destruction of the Temple,
“the downfall of the dynasty and the loss of Jewish independence could well have
cast doubt on the theory that the Hasmonean victories were miracles justifying a
religious festival.” The rabbis therefore explained the use of the word
“miracles” by saying that the Hanukka miracle was that the oil burned for eight
days. Nevertheless, the Sages did not amend the text of the ancient prayer. It
still focuses on the victory of the Jews over their enemies against all odds, as
the miraculous events that we celebrate of Hanukka.
This original meaning
has come to be relevant again ever since the founding of the State of Israel,
when the miracle of a revived Jewish nation and its victory in the War of
Independence has been seen as “miraculous” – although not in a supernatural way.
I think it may have been S.Y. Agnon who once said that victory could have been
achieved in either a natural or a miraculous way. The natural way would have
been for God to intervene.
The miraculous way would have been for the
Israeli army to prevail against so many armies.
Though both Thanksgiving
and Hanukka have roots in Succot, they have each gone in a different direction.
Thanksgiving is what its name implies – a time to be thankful to God for the
gifts of the harvest and of a good life. That is very close to the core meaning
of Succot. Hanukka – as its name implies – celebrates a very specific historical
event: the triumph of the Maccabees, concluding with the dedication of the
Temple to the service of God.
Each has its place in a religious life. We
appreciate nature and the world in which we live, seeing it as the gift of God.
We also celebrate the times in which good triumphed over evil in history, as
they too represent God’s presence. Combining the two is most appropriate. The
writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time
winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is
The Torah Revolution