Usually we think of the annual challenge facing American Jews—and especially interfaith families—as the conflict between Christmas and Hanukkah. I have gone on record and said many times, “Hanukkah is not a minor festival. In North America, it is a major holiday.” By now, many people have realized that this year’s calendar conflict will occur in November rather than in December: between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. While these two holidays seem never to have been in conflict with one another, it will nevertheless challenge the religious mindset of folks as they consider which celebration will take precedence over the other, especially since Hanukkah has become the national Jewish holiday. One enterprising young man has already weighed in with his Menurkey, a Hanukkiyah that looks like a turkey. I am sure that as we leave this string of fall holidays behind, more ingenuity and practical solutions will emerge.
Admittedly, the Jewish holiday cycle and calendation, that is, figuring out when holidays take place and for how long (in the soli-lunar Hebrew calendar), is among the most challenging for those on the periphery of Jewish life. It gets even more confusing when you add the Israeli interpretation of the holiday calendar (slightly different and mostly followed by the Reform movement, as well). (I’ll let you in on a little secret: it is also challenging for those on the inside.) That’s among the reasons why people often find it difficult to get in sync with the rhythm of Jewish life. As a result, especially when a creative environment is not built for them, they simply opt out.
There are basically two primary holiday cycles in the Jewish religious calendar. The fall holidays actually begin toward the end of the summer, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This initiates the period of intensive introspection that includes Rosh Hashanah and culminates in Yom Kippur. But the seasonal cycle doesn’t conclude until the holiday that is the end cap for Sukkot: Simchat Torah, which celebrates the year-long cycle of reading the Torah. The spring holidays begin with Pesach (Passover) and after a period of counting down toward the barley harvest (called Sefirat Haomer) and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, this period concludes with the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the spring harvest, or more specifically, the barley harvest.
So what does this have to do with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah? The Pilgrims were Bible readers. They got their inspiration for Thanksgiving from the Biblical story of Sukkot. The first Hanukkah (the rededication of the ancient Temple following the Maccabean victory over the Assyrian Greeks) was actually the postponed celebration of Sukkot, which couldn’t take place due to the occupation of Jerusalem by the foreign armies. Moreover, while Yom Kippur is focused on atonement and forgiveness, the window for repentance is still open until Hoshanah Rabbah, the day prior to Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. And according to the Hasidim (a traditional Jewish mystical movement), you actually have until Hanukkah to repent (probably since it was the original Sukkot in the first place and the desire to communicate that the door to return to the Divine is always open).
Confused? Here is one way to unravel the holidays—by connecting them to one another.
One holiday weaves into another. Each one is connected to the one that follows and the one that comes before. In our home, we consciously make such connections. High Holiday cards adorn our sukkah. We make etrog liqueur for Sukkot, which we share on Tu Bishevat (Jewish Earth Day). And we use the lulav to burn the chametz (the leavened food we clean our homes of) on Passover.
The connection between Hanukkah and Thanksgiving may seem odd, as it is extremely rare, but the holidays have such a deep Biblical connection that it is actually a wonderful opportunity to shed new light on old traditions. How will you celebrate Hanukkah and Thanksgiving this year? Share your thoughts on our Big Tent Judaism Facebook page by clicking here.
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