Tradition today: Giving thanks on Hanukka

The American Thanksgiving and the Jewish Hanukka – have a common origin: Both are derived from the biblical feast of Succot.

Thanksgiving turkey 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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 treat.
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 supernatural event.
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 (Jewish Lights).