Thanksgiving and Chanukah: A Dual Celebration

Rare overlap of holidays means twice the reason to be thankful.

Rabbi Jeffrey Clopper. Photo Credit: Barry J. Zusman
Rabbi Jeffrey Clopper. Photo Credit: Barry J. Zusman

By Rabbi Jeffrey Clopper
Temple Beth El of Huntington

I can picture now how the table will look.  Turkey, stuffing, homemade gravy, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole and, of course, pumpkin pie.  It will be fitting feast for the Thanksgiving holiday.  This year, there will be a few additions to our regular fare.  Latkes (Jewish potato pancakes), apple sauce and a few jelly doughnuts will be among the tantalizing platters.

Thanksgiving and Chanukah occur on the same day.  It has never happened before our lifetimes (unless you were around in 1888, the only time is has occurred since President Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a formal holiday in 1863).  One scholar even figured out that the American calendar, which is solar, and the Jewish holiday calendar, which is lunar, will not coincide again this way for more than 77,000 years.

I marvel at the similarities between the two holidays.  In the 1600s, the Pilgrims sought refuge on the shores of the New World in hopes of finding religious freedom.  Despite overwhelming odds, and several illnesses that decimated their initial group, they managed to lay a foundation for a growing colony.  Once established in the New World, the Pilgrims celebrated a festival in honor of their first harvest, a practice common in many cultures and religious denominations.

The story of the Chanukah is strikingly similar.  Some 1,700 years before the Pilgrims, a group of ancient Israelites called the Maccabees wanted the freedom to live according to their ancient practices denied them by the powerful Antiochus Epiphanes and the Seleucid Empire.  As soldiers defiled the Second Temple in Jerusalem and ritual practices were outlawed, the Maccabees rose up in defiance.  Hiding in the vast wilderness, Mattathias, his son Judah (nicknamed the Maccabee which translates in Greek as “the hammer”) and their followers somehow defeated a much more powerful army and regained control, both religious and civil, over the land of Israel.  Once the Temple was cleansed, since they had not been allowed to observe Sukkot – a religious festival celebrating the end of the harvest – the Maccabees initiated a week-long celebration to honor the harvest, their good fortune and the fact that they could rededicate their sacred Temple.  Thus, the origin of Chanukah.

The two stories are centuries apart, yet they are so similar.  As I sit at the table with a plate full of turkey, latkes and all the fixings, I think I will find it tastier than usual. The evening will be twice as joyful, twice as sweet.  As an American and as a Jew, I will enjoy celebrating my national heritage and my religious history. I am inspired by these two moments in history, stories of unbelievable courage and dedication for two communities that only wanted the freedom to worship their own way.

I may have to find bigger plates this year, and I can be sure of an extra trip or two to the gym to work off all the additional calories.  However, it will be well worth it.  

After all, I will have twice as much for which to be thankful. 


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