Giving thanks


As has been discussed, Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah fall on the same date this year – Thursday, November 28. It has also been established that this is indeed a rare event. But let’s take a closer look at this seemingly random phenomenon:

Thanksgiving is a wonderful American tradition: millions of fat juicy turkeys baste away in countless ovens, bright seasonal vegetables sit steaming on the tables. The Detroit Lions football team plays every Thanksgiving. This year’s game is against the Green Bay Packers. You can hear the sounds of the game up and down the streets of America, over kids playing their own games and the gossiping and greetings of cousins and aunts pulling up to relatives’ homes to celebrate the day, carrying foil-wrapped and panned goodies for the Thanksgiving table. It is also a day to remember and feed the homeless and make them a ‘part of the family’.

So what is Hanukkah doing here this year? How does the Jewish ‘Festival of Lights’ come so early? Isn’t Hanukkah the Jews’ pale answer to Yuletide? How are we going to light our trusty old menorah, thick with years of melted wax, when our fingers are greasy from gravy and stuffing? Is there some kind of tie-in between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah that we can bring up to the family? Maybe put cranberry sauce on latkes? Give the kids some dreidels and chocolate gelt to play with so we can watch the game? “May I speak to the Holiday Department Customer Service please? We seem to have a problem …”

Besides the widespread perception that Hanukkah is the “Festival of Lights,” the fact is that without the historical events associated with Hanukkah, there would be no Christianity and thus no religious winter holiday (though secular winter solstice festivals of light were widespread back then). There would also be Santa Claus would never have been able to quit his day job.

So let’s use this year’s coincidence of the Jewish Hanukkah and the American Thanksgiving to understand why Hanukkah is a major celebration. First, let’s go to a source that identifies Hanukkah in surprisingly relevant words: a simple paragraph from the voluminous Talmud – traditionally presented as teachings given orally by God to Moses and later transmitted in writing by our great sages to ensure that Torah lives and grows with humankind. (Interestingly, most major American law schools now bring in Hebrew scholars to teach the talmudic method of thought, discussion, debate and decision.) So now let’s see what the Talmud has to say about Hanukkah.

One must dig deep into the talmudic tractate Shabbat to find this short, intriguing paragraph (b. Shab. 21b).* Naturally, being Jewish, the sages open the discourse with a question:

“What is Hanukkah? As the Rabbis learned, on the 25th of Kislev [begin] the days of Hanukkah, eight in number, during which it is forbidden to eulogize or to fast. For [as recounted in the Apocrophal Books of the Maccabees] when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. When the royal Hasmonean house overpowered and vanquished them, they searched and found only one flask of oil lying there with the seal of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), which contained only enough oil to kindle [the Temple Menorah] for one day. A miracle happened with it, so that they could kindle [the Menorah] for eight days. The following year [the Hasmoneans and the Sanhedrin] established and rendered [these eight days] as festival days – with respect to [the recitation of] Hallel and ‘thanksgiving.’”

There it is – one and a half millennia before there was even a boat called The Mayflower, this day was already being called “Thanksgiving”!

Editor’s note: Rabbi Moshe Mones, writer, producer and director (under the name of Paul Mones) is the 2013 award winner – Best Director – at the Moondance Film Festival for his film “Dovid Meyer: The Orphan from Jerusalem” (See the Sept. 27 issue of The Voice “Moondance International Film Festival Premiere.”)

*Additional note: This piece was edited for historical accuracy by Jewish Voice Editorial Consultant Judith Romney Wegner. She writes: “The ‘miracle of the oil’ is a rabbinical tradition recorded in the Talmud many centuries after the historical Maccabean revolt, which took place in the years 167-164 B.C.E.