by Rabbi David J. Cooper
Some say it won’t happen again for thousands of years—that the first light of Chanukah is on the evening before Thanksgiving. I’m not totally sure about that, but here is why they coincide this year. Simply put, this is the latest that Thanksgiving can start and the earliest that Chanukah can fall.
The date of Thanksgiving switches depending on when the fourth Thursday falls. The 28th is the absolute latest day that a fourth Thursday can fall in any month (when the month begins on Friday). This happens not infrequently, i.e. the next November 28 Thanksgiving will be in 2019. BUT, the night of November 27th is the absolutely earliest that Chanukah can fall and that won’t happen again until 2089. But that year Thanksgiving will fall on the 24th, a few days before.
So none of us alive today will ever live to see this confluence again. But as long as it is happening, what can we get from it? Well, fat. Turkey, stuffing, and deep-fried potato pancakes. Sounds like an Elvis breakfast.
But spiritually/historically speaking, there actually is a connection between the two holidays. Both of them, at least partially, derive from Sukkot.
Sukkot? Huh? The Maccabees would probably have preferred that a dedication of the Temple happen during the biggest festival of the Jewish year when everyone would pilgrimage to Jerusalem after the fall harvest was in and vast quantities of food would be available. But the Temple wasn’t ready, so they decided to create a second Sukkot in the month of Kislev, and make it the same eight-day length as Sukkot (when you include Shemini Atzeret as part of Sukkot). So the first Chanukah was, in essence, a delayed harvest festival.
And the same is true for Thanksgiving which, in early New England, was often celebrated in October as was Sukkot, and was referenced to the Biblical harvest holiday. But, for various reasons, it was pushed into late November – so it, too, is a delayed harvest feast.
And both Thanksgiving and the ancient version of Sukkot are similar in that they celebrate the ritual of hachnasat orchim: the inviting and greeting of visitors. The Torah commanded vast quantities of food be cooked and shared with loved ones and strangers, with the poor and with the priests. And all were ritually required to be happy as they shared the bounty.
On Sukkot and on Chanukah we add a prayer segment to the service called Hallel. It is the singingest collection of prayers in most synagogues, consisting of a series of joyous songs of gratitude.
So it is particularly fortuitous that this once-in-a-millennium event provides us with the opportunity to perform the gratitude songs of Hallel as part of our “Thanksgivukkah.”
And remember, this year, cranberry sauce on latkes is not only a good idea – it’s a mitzvah.