Hanukkah has always been about thanksgiving.
One of my favorite seemingly unlikely Jewish comparisons is the parallel between Purim and Yom Kippur; the latter’s proper name is actually Yom HaKiPurim which can simply be understood as “the day that is like Purim.” How are they similar? Perhaps, many teach, because they are each unlike any other day of the year, they each emphasize extremes. Purim focuses on the material—indulgence in food and drink, unrestrained merry-making, while Yom Kippur focuses on the spiritual—abstaining from our daily needs as humans, living as though we are physically dead so that by day’s end we are more spiritually alive than ever. The other three hundred something days of the year we live in balance, with an integration of spirit and body.
About ten years ago, when looking at a perpetual Jewish calendar, I noticed that in 2013, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving would coincide for the first time since 1918. And now and again since that time, I have revealed—in a way that some would call “geeking out”—my excitement about “what is going to happen in 2013” to anyone who would listen.
As this Gregorian and now Jewish year has unfolded, I have noticed that people’s reactions to the upcoming coincidence vary from wonder and intrigue to anxiety about how to handle the challenges that will come later in December when the Jewish festival of lights will have long come and gone.
Inasmuch as some Jews marvel that Hanukkah’s prominence as a holiday has largely increased because of the Christmas season surrounding it in secular/Christian American culture, many also point out the connection between these two holidays (and others that take place around the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice): light in the midst of darkness. Long, cold nights sometimes increase anxiety about what tomorrow will bring, so lighting up the night becomes an act of faith and hope. It is no wonder that Jewish tradition encourages us to say the blessing “she’asah nisim,” over the miracles even if we did not light Hanukkah candles ourselves but simply saw the candles burning that someone else had lit.
Hanukkah has always been about thanksgiving. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) describes the days of Hanukkah as days of praise and thanksgiving. Perhaps one component of this thanksgiving was a military victory, a triumph of the few over the many. Perhaps it was relief that Sukkot—the greatest holiday of the year in ancient times—could finally be celebrated, albeit a couple of months late. Sukkot’s emphasis on thanksgiving at the end of the harvest season powerfully influenced our Hanukkah practice. The Hallel Psalms we recite throughout Hanukkah are more elaborate than the ones we say for most of Passover (which is otherwise understood as a more important holiday than Hanukkah because of its biblical origin).
This Thanksgiving provides us a unique opportunity. How often do we light the menorah on the national holiday in late November, quip about deep-fried turkey paired with sweet potato latkes, and find ourselves off the hook for planning whether to gather with our family for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah?
If you love to study texts, I suggest you use this holiday as an opportunity to read the “Al Hanisim” prayer that is added to the Amidah and blessing after meals for Hanukkah alongside President Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789. The similarity in the language is striking.
For many young children, this will be the first Thanksgiving they remember and they might not want to wait until 2070 to serve latkes again on the great American High Holiday. So instead of emphasizing the “getting” of material gifts during Hanukkah, this might be the perfect year to find ways to express gratitude for the thousands upon thousands of ways we feel blessed morning, noon, and night.
If Purim and Yom Kippur are unique because their extremes are reserved for only one day of the year, then I think Hanukkah’s message of thanksgiving is just the opposite; it is a yearly reminder that we should appreciate our existence every day. Not just on the 25th of Kislev, and not just in 1918 or 2013, but every morning. The first words that the Jewish prayer book calls us to say are “modah ani,” I am thankful, “modeh ani,” I am grateful.
Rabbi Jason Klein is the director for the Center for Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Project of Lower Manhattan (jcpdowntown.org). He currently serves as President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and is the author of "Hanuka" in A Guide to Jewish Practice.