By Rabbi David M. Sofian, Temple Israel
According to Snopes.com what will soon happen has never happened before and will never happen again. What’s that? Only on Nov. 28, 2013 will the first day of Chanukah coincide with Thanksgiving.
This is because the latest Thanksgiving can be — set on the fourth Thursday in November — is Nov. 28. As it turns out given the workings of the Jewish calendar, the earliest Chanukah can be is also Nov. 28. Given that the Jewish calendar follows a 19-year cycle and the day on which Thanksgiving falls follows a seven-year cycle, one might think these two events would coincide about every 133 years (19 X 7). That would mean the last time it happened would have been 1861. But President Lincoln only formally established Thanksgiving in 1863. Clearly, this year’s coincidence has never happened before.
It also turns out that it will never happen again. Why is that? The math is way too hard for me to really grasp but it turns out that our Jewish calendar is very slowly getting out of sync with the solar calendar. I mean really slowly; at a rate of four days per 1,000 years.
Putting this all together means that while currently the earliest Chanukah can come is Nov. 28, as the years pass, the earliest Chanukah can come will be Nov. 29. The math says the very last time Chanukah will fall on Nov. 28 is the year 2146. Unfortunately, that day is a Monday.
Bottom line: this year, 2013, is the only time the first day of Chanukah and Thanksgiving Day will coincide. Pretty interesting! This unique occurrence started me thinking.
Allow me to ask a fundamental question: why do we celebrate Chanukah for eight days? Everyone, even many non-Jews, knows the answer, correct?
The answer that has been drilled into us from the earliest age is the one the Talmud offers about the miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days instead of one.
Even though virtually all of us have accepted that answer, I always wonder why we don’t celebrate Chanukah for seven days. After all, the oil was supposed to burn for one day; the miracle would be that it burned for the next seven.
What you may not know is that the Second Book of Maccabees, which is found in the Apocrypha, gives us a different and to my mind more interesting reason. There it says, “The joyful celebration lasted for eight days; it was like the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), for they recalled how, only a short time before, they had kept the feast while they were living like wild animals in the mountains and caves; and so they carried garlanded wands and branches with their fruits, as well as palm-fronds, and they chanted hymns to the One who had so triumphantly achieved the purification of His own Temple.”
In other words, the rededication of the Temple (Chanukah) was associated with Sukkot, an extremely important festival observance in that time.
Just as Sukkot, with its special eighth-day observance (Shemini Atzeret) lasted eight days according to the Torah, so the Maccabees’ celebration of the Temple’s rededication lasted eight days.
It is very much worth recalling that our American Thanksgiving holiday, the notion that the harvest should be celebrated with a feast of thanksgiving, was inspired by our Torah’s discussion of Sukkot also.
Therefore, I think we might ask, is there something important, even crucial, to learn from the juxtaposition of Chanukah and Thanksgiving?
This connection reminds me that as American Jews we need to balance two very difficult responsibilities.
Thanksgiving is universally American. It is the only religious holiday that all Americans can share without reservation. It points us to the bounty of God’s creation and reminds us to be thankful for all our blessings.
On the other hand, Chanukah is especially particular about Jewish religious heritage and identity. It points us to our need to rededicate ourselves to our Judaism and our special Jewish identities even as the Maccabees rededicated themselves to theirs by refusing the lure of assimilation to Greek culture.
I think there can be no doubt that it is difficult to balance both. It can be hard to be part of our larger society and at the same time be devoted to our Jewish heritage and committed to its survival.
Yet, this year, the unique circumstance of the first day of Chanukah coinciding with Thanksgiving Day itself reminds us that we must do both if we are to continue to thrive as Americans and as Jews.
This year as we simultaneously observe the American feast of Thanksgiving and the Jewish Festival of Lights, may we remember to be grateful for all our blessings living here in America and remember to keep the flame of Jewish heritage and identity burning. That is what I think our special calendar oddity is teaching us.
To view the print version of the November Observer, click here.