Thanksgiving and Hanukkah

Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. The smells of the turkey cooking in the oven, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and apple pie fill American homes as families gather to be thankful and celebrate. There are also interesting connections between Thanksgiving and the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah which will be celebrated for the first time together since 1888 and not again for another 77,798 years! This happens because the Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar while the Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar calendar.

The pilgrims, authors of the Mayflower Compact in November 1620, declared, "Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith" were guided by a very strong religious fervor and faith who saw themselves as establishing a New Israel. They read their Bible and many scholars point to the Sukkot, the Jewish fall harvest holiday, as being a basis for Thanksgiving.

We also know that Sukkot is the original basis why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days. And that fact raises an interesting point. Both Thanksgiving and Hannukah, in this day and age, are celebrated as holidays of religious freedom when that was neither their original intent nor completely historically accurate. The earliest sources, (II Macabees), explain that Hanukkah was an eight day holiday being a late celebration of Sukkot since, "during Sukkot they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals" during the battle against the Greek occupiers of ancient Israel.

Sukkot was also an appropriate basis for Hanukkah since Sukkot was the holiday when the King Solomon dedicated the First Temple in Jerusalem some 780 years earlier. The story of the miracle of the oil does not appear until much later during the Talmudic period because the rabbis had an ax to grind against the Macabees who combined both being kings and priests, and because of their corruption and infighting eventually led to the Romans conquest and the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 and the end of Jewish sovereignty until 1948. In all of these explanations of the origins of Hanukkah the freedom of Jews to celebrate our religion is paramount.

Thanksgiving is also celebrated as a holiday of religious freedom. The Puritans left England, first via Holland, having been persecuted in England for their religious beliefs. They established the Plymouth Colony to be able to celebrate their form of Christianity as they understood it and celebrated their first Thanksgiving in November of 1621. But they were not advocates of religious freedom for others; they were believers in a theocratic intolerant community. Fortunately for America, and the world, it was not the narrow minded Puritans of Plymouth that won the day, but a different Puritan who made a break with them whose thinking would prevail. Roger Williams arrived in Plymouth in 1631 with his ideas of separation of house of worship and state along with freedom of religion.

By 1635 he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for these heretical beliefs and fled to present day Rhode Island where we was welcomed by the Narragansett Native Americans and established Providence since he believed that God's providence had led him there. As the colonies formed into a nation over the ensuing century and a half it was the voice of Roger Williams as seen in the writings of Jefferson and others that became the true vision and aim of the United States of America. And this brings us back to the story of Hannukah. While the Maccabees were fighting for freedom from Greek occupation and oppression they were not fighting for religious freedom for all. In fact they were also involved in a civil was with the Hellenized Jews of their day.

Like the Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock, the Maccabees had a very narrow view of who and what they would accept when it came to religion; neither believed in a pluralistic approach to religion.

And yet we celebrate both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as holidays of religious freedom. One could say that we have created a false myth about both holidays. Myths may not be literally true, but they are one of the vehicles where societies safeguard their values. In the case of the observance of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah we decided that religious freedom is something we hold sacred and have chosen to celebrate through both of these holidays. And for that we can be thankful.

Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation and teaches at Bennington College and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.


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