The science behind Thanksguvvukah


The complaints started in August: The holidays are so early this year! Rosh Hashanah is just two days after Labor Day. Next, no sooner have we slogged through a September where it seems that more days are Jewish holidays than not, than we get hit with how early Hanukkah is. I hear the refrain: I can’t believe the first candle is the night before Thanksgiving!

Actually, Rosh Hashanah is always the first day of the Jewish month of Tishri and the first day of Hanukkah is always on the 25th of Kislev.  But since the “regular” Gregorian calendar is solar-based and the Jewish calendar is lunar/solar-based, and since most of our lives revolve around the secular calendar, there is the old Jewish joke that the holidays are either early or late, but never at the right time.

Without going into too much detail, let me explain.  The Gregorian calendar is based on the solar year (the time it takes for the earth to revolve completely around the sun, or 365 1/4 days). As we all know, the months are of varying lengths, adjusted to fit into 365 (or once every four years, 366) days. The Jewish calendar is at its heart lunar based. That is, it is based on the amount of time it takes for the moon to complete a revolution around the earth.  On average, this takes 29 1/2 days; so in order to have complete days in a lunar month, some are 29 and some are 30 days.  The problem is that a 12-month lunar calendar is about 11 days short of a year.  Without adjustment, the Jewish holidays would float around the year, changing even what season they occur in (which is what happens with Ramadan, as the Muslim calendar is entirely lunar based.)

In order for this to not happen, our wise Jewish ancestors (a feat commonly attributed to Hillel in the fourth century) established a complicated system of leap months. That is, over every 19-year period, an extra month is added to the calendar 7 times. Thus we see a pattern as we look at our Jewish holidays: they seem to get earlier and earlier over time and then suddenly are late, only to get progressively early again.

There has been even more buzz this year about the calendar because of the fact that the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving (which means that the first candle is lit the night before.) There have been a number of people who have posted on the web about how this coincidence has happened only once before and can never – or perhaps in 75,000 years – happen again. (See “Drumsticks and dreidles” in the Oct. 25 issue of The Jewish Voice.)

So it seems that this is a rare occasion that demands attention. One entrepreneurial Manhattan fourth grader did just that, by creating a “Menurkey,” or menorah shaped like a turkey that is actually available for purchase. The Buzzfeed website has many recipes and ideas for celebrating what they call “Thanksguvakkah.” And the Union for Reform Judaism has information on its website about combining the holidays as well.

Here at the Alliance, we’re also taking advantage. On Nov. 19 at 9:00 a.m. or Nov. 21 at 4:00 p.m., you can drop in at the Creativity Center to make a Hanukkah/Thanksgiving craft.

And if you just want to learn more about Hanukkah in general, come to our free Hanukkah Helper workshop on Thursday, Nov. 14, at 7:00 p.m.

Kit Haspel is the Director of Interfaith Outreach at the Alliance. To learn more about the Hanukkah Helper program, contact Kit at 421-4111, ext. 184 or To learn more about the Drop-In Crafts, contact Michelle Cicchitelli at ext. 178 or