Thanksgivukkah Part II?

While Hanukkah, which begins Sunday evening, November 28, may not be as famous or all pervasive as that other holiday that takes place in December (that’s right, Boxing Day), its message burns bright when the nights are longest and days often darkest. Hanukkah should have special resonance for all people who value freedom and religious liberty, especially for religious minorities. As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week, appreciating the meaning of Hanukkah can deepen our understanding of this quintessential American day by connecting it to larger, historical themes.

The Brief History:  The Seleucid Greeks invaded the autonomous Jewish homeland of Judea/Israel some 2200 years ago and demanded that Jews cease their own religious worship and practice.  They looted and defiled the Jewish Temple, erecting within a statue of the Greek god Zeus to which the Jews were supposed to bow.  A small group of courageous Jews decided that, notwithstanding the impossible odds, they must fight the mighty military power to regain their independence and religious liberty.  Though badly mismatched against this powerful and determined Greek foe, the Jews stunningly recaptured control of Israel, reclaimed their independence and ultimately restored their freedom of worship.  After this incomprehensible, miraculous victory on the battlefield, the Jews re-consecrated their pagan-defiled Temple, including restoring the daily lighting of the Temple Menorah.  Though only enough pure oil could be found to keep the Menorah burning for one day, they re-lit it anyway; it miraculously continued burning for eight straight days until new stocks of pure oil could be brought to the Temple.

To commemorate the miracles on the battlefield and in the Temple, the rabbis established the eight-day Hanukah holiday, which has been celebrated annually for the past 2200 years.  During these festive days, Jews give thanks to God for that miraculous deliverance through daily prayer emphasizing praise and song, family lighting of menorahs at home, and eating oily latkes (potato pancakes) and Jelly donuts—according to donut historians, a custom inaugurated at an ancient Dunkin’ Donuts located in the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem in 162 BCE.

Sound familiar (well, at least minus the donuts)? It is no coincidence that exactly 400 years ago, the early Puritans, too, established a formal thanksgiving to God for bringing them to a new promised land and allowing them to flourish–in the face of their own long odds.  The Puritans saw themselves as new Israelites, whom God had rescued from oppression and protected through their long journey, allowing them to establish their new “promised land” in America where they and other religious minorities could worship in freedom.  While Thanksgiving for most celebrants centers more around football (really – the Lions again?), family and food, the original Thanksgiving proclamations of Presidents Washington and Lincoln emphasize the importance of giving thanks to God.  It is not a stretch to say that American Thanksgiving may well have been influenced by the thanksgiving to God that we find in the Hanukkah themes and prayers.  Hanukkah is, in essence, the Jewish holiday of thanksgiving, as reflected in the “Al Ha-nisim” (the Thank You for Miracles) prayer that we include in the blessing of “Thanksgiving” in our daily Amida (silent prayer).

From America’s earliest days, when Hebrew was spoken in Ivy League universities and Benjamin Franklin used the Jews’ exodus from Egypt in his design of the Great Seal of America, Jews have always enjoyed a special relationship with this great country.  Having been denied religious freedom for most of Jewish history since the Jews were exiled from Israel some 200 years after the Hanukkah events, Jews are especially thankful to be living in an America which values religious freedom.  At this time of the year, when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah almost coincide again, we appreciate this great nation which protects the religious rights of all.  For those who celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let us all pause from the football games and food, and appreciate the gifts of freedom we have, thanks to the legacy and light of the ancient Maccabees, whose intense fire continues to guide us 2200 years later.

A good Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah.

About the Author
Maury Kelman is a rabbi and attorney, chairman of Kedma, rabbi of Congregation Agudath Achim and also oversees Route 613, a halakhic conversion program.
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