My students ask me, “Rabbi Goldie, just what gives?
Is celebrating Thanksgivukkah really the way a good Jew lives?”
There is only one way I know to decide:
By the dreidel’s spin, you’ll have to abide.
Here is how it works, you should pardon the mention,
of these Five Thanksgivukkah Academic Spin K’vetch-tions:
- If your dreidel lands on the Hebrew letter Hey-and you answer correctly, you get to take half the “pot”.
Is Thanksgiving based on a Jewish festival, and which one?
- Should your dreidel land on the Hebrew letter Shin (outside of Israel) or Pei (in Israel) — if your answer is incorrect, half goes back into the pot.
What was the first of the three miracles of Hanukkah?
- If your dreidel lands on the Hebrew letter nun, for a wrong answer, all your winnings go back into the pot.
Does Hanukkah commemorate the first known dedication of the Temple?
- A correct answer when your dreidel lands on Gimel let’s you take everything that’s in the pot.
Whose idea was it to make Thanksgiving an American National holiday?
- Bonus Question, right or wrong, everything in each person’s pot goes straight into the tzedakah box!
When is the next time the first night of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will coincide?
Check your answers and record how well you did after the jump.
1. Is Thanksgiving based on a Jewish festival, and which one?
Some readers may have seen Internet articles suggesting that Thanksgiving originates from the Biblical harvest holiday know as Sukkot. The timing is usually close enough to make this seem plausible.
However, research reported by my colleague Robert Gluck in an article titled Did Sukkot Help Shape Thanksgiving? includes his discussion with Biblical scholar Jonathan Sarna. Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the Philadelphia-based National Museum of American Jewish History, explained:
The Puritan’s did not believe in fixed holidays. If it was a good season, they would announce a thanksgiving, but it’s not like the Jewish holiday which occurs on the 15th of the month of Tishrei (Sukkot). They did not believe in that.
Sarna then points Gluck to Diana Muir Applebaum, a Massachusetts-based historian who wrote the book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History. She explains:
The Separatists at Plymouth did not create an annual holiday [of Thanksgiving]. Rather, a holiday that grew in popularity and stabilized into an annual celebration over the course of several decades was later traced back to an event that took place at Plymouth in December 1621.
Puritans accepted the Sabbath but rejected all other holy days in the Five Books of Moses as being given by God for only Jewish observance. The Puritans practice was to declare of day of thanks giving when the harvest was actually good, they did not adhere to regular festivals, it was not their way.
2. What was the first of the (at least) three miracles of Hanukkah?
The original “miracle” of Hanukkah was the collaboration of the tiny handful of remaining religious Jews with the vast number of non-observant Jews of the time to wrest Jewish sovereignty over Israel back from the occupying Syro-Greeks.
A second miracle begins with appreciating the relevance of this text, of Megillat Ta’anit Chapter 9:
During the days of the Greek Kingdom, the Hasmonean [Maccabees] entered the sanctuary, rebuilt the altar, repaired the sanctuary’s walls, replaced the sacred vessels and were engaged in its rebuilding for eight days.
So, we this is one source for knowing they were engaged in purifying the Temple. And the next miracle is that the Hasmoneans, known for their extreme (and later horrifically fanatical) piety, underwent a surprising shift in consciousness. Instead of waiting for the fire to come down from God to rekindle the altar, they lit it themselves.
So where did the idea of the miracle, of the little flask of oil lasting specifically eight days, come from?
Now our story has gone full circle: It could have come from Sukkot!
Another colleague of mine, Brian Field, reminded our rabbinic discussion list last week that this connection can be found in preserved texts that are not part of the Jewish canon. They are collectively known as the Apocrypha.
Of these, a Hanukkah narrative is found in II Maccabees 10 (see The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), where the Maccabees:
Celebrated the occasion [of winning back the Temple in Jerusalem] after the manner of the Festival of Tabernacles [Sukkot], and decreed that the eight-day festival in honor of the [Temple’s] purification.
To find the actual documentation of the story of the miracle of the oil lasting, which is given long after the original Hanukkah events, one must roll forward in time to the period of the Babylonian Talmud, where it is introduced in Shabbat 21:
What is the reason for Chanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev begin the days of Chanukah, which are eight, during which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden.
For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they [the Hasmoneans] searched and found only one cruse of oil which possessed the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred there and they lit [the lamp] for eight days.
The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recitation of Hallel [specific psalms] and thanksgiving.
3. Does Hanukkah commemorate the first known dedication of the Temple?
Hanukkah in Hebrew means “dedication,” and shares the same Hebrew root as hinukh, “education.” The rabbinic commentary Midrash-Pesikt Rabbati, chapter 2, offers seven “Hanukkahs,” i.e., points of dedication. Here they are in a translation by Rabbi Judith Abrams:
1. The Hanukkah of finishing creating the heaven and earth, which God observed by “turning on” the two great lights (the sun and moon) in the sky (Genesis 2:1, 1:17).
2. The Hanukkah of completing the wall enclosing Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27), observed with lots of singing.
3. The Hanukkah of the successful return from Babylonian captivity (Ezra 6:17), observed with lots of singing and offerings.
4. The Hanukkah of the Hasmonean priests, for which we kindle the Hannukkah lamps, symbolizing their complete victory. The original menorah in this case was probably fashioned from spearheads turned into torches, since the original menorah had been taken away. (See Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature, pp. 34-39.)
5. The Hanukkah of the World to Come (Zephaniah 1:12-1), in which the wealthy and unjust are utterly annihilated by God, accompanied with the sound of crying, this time cries of sorrow, not joy.
6. The Hanukkah of the princes’ anointing the altar (Numbers 7:84-89). After all twelve princes finished bringing their offerings of silver and gold items, the whole array, clanging mightily, we might suppose, accompanied by the bellowing of the sacrificial oxen, was followed with what one might call, “the still, small voice” that Moses hears from beyond the ark’s cover.
7. And the Hanukkah of the First Temple’s dedication (Psalm 30:1), celebrated with this psalm. (Pesikta Rabbati 2:3)
4. Whose idea was it to make Thanksgiving an American National holiday?
It turns out the idea came from a woman, Sarah Josepha Hale.
Several presidents ignored her missives petitioning for such a national holiday. Before her time, President George Washington held a national day of Thanksgiving, but did so only once. Various states, mainly in New England, had Thanksgiving celebration traditions, but held them on days different to each other.
So which president took Sarah Josepha Hale up on her suggestion?
I first learned the answer from my colleague Seth Goldstein, who shared how Hale, at the time a 74-year-old magazine editor, wrote a letter to Lincoln on September 28, 1863, urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival”:
You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.
She also lobbied the presidents with pressure from her readers.
Our national holiday of Thanksgiving was established in response to her letter and because it served the strategic interests of the President, as the decision came came in the midst of civil war and several months following the Emancipation Proclamation.
He declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday on October 3, 1789 — 74 years after George Washington, and 243 years after the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620.
Bonus Question: When is the next time the first night of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will coincide?
The first night of Hanukkah will fall out during Thanksgiving dinner-time in 2070, and then again in 2165.
Previously there were overlaps in 1888, 1899, 1945 and 1956, and since some states would, in days gone-by, use different Thanksgiving dates to the majority of the nation, there were two more overlaps as well. Since Thanksgiving has not always been held on the same day of the same week each year in the past, figuring this out is not as simple as it might seem.
To further complicate matters, those of us sitting down in gratitude to Thanksgivukkah’s latke-stuffed turkey dinners at roughly 4:19 p.m. after the first light of Hanukkah is lit in 2070, may be surprised that Joel Hoffman does not count first night overlaps as valid.
In his late-coming Nov. 24 article, Why Hanukkah and Thanksgiving Will Never Again Coincide Again, he only counts as valid whole days, not erev — “evening” overlaps. From a ritual point of view, that view is hard to swallow.
It is true that after the first night of Hanukkah overlaps of 2165 and 2070, no degree of overlap is presently scheduled to occur for tens of thousands of years into the future. This is because of the gradual drift between the secular solar calendar and our Jewish lunar calendar.
However, Jewish calendar adjustments are made from time to time to ensure Jewish holidays align with their intended seasons, so likely, that too will change. Learn more in our article, Next Thanksgivukkah in 80k Years? Wrong!
Nu? Did you have a good learning?
Or does it seem somewhat unfair,
when the origin stories we were raised with just do not square?
Where do you stand on this cosmic convergence?
Is it more than just a bonanza for merchants?
For this Hanukkah, may you be blessed,
to have gratitude that we are only spinning a dreidel, for we get to stay dressed!
Chag Sameach from Rabbi Goldie Milgram