Let us call it “Convergence of Goodness.” This year, something will happen in the Judeo-Christian world which will not happen for another 79,000 years. I hate to wait that long for any good event to take place, but I am a very patient sort of guy.
The first day of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving Day both occur on November 28, 2013. The claims of synchronicity are not quite as accurate. The first Hanukkah candle is lit on 24 Kislev, which is the evening of November 27 th. Jewish holidays start at nightfall, and therefore the holiday of Hanukkah really starts on the Latin November 27 th. On the other hand, Thanksgiving starts 25 Kislev on the lunar calendar, November 28 th. Now that you are thoroughly confused, what is the significance of this astrological coincidence?
Hanukkah is a non-Biblical, or some would say post-Biblical, Jewish holiday. The events of Hanukkah were accepted by the Rabbis as a genuine miracle, endorsed as such by worldwide Jewry and celebrated ever since the downfall of the Greek Syrian government at the hands of a small band of Jewish freedom fighters. Hanukkah is ensconced within the Christian book of the Maccabees, but interestingly that book is not part of the Jewish Bible. Nevertheless, we read the story of the Maccabees every year. Why is the Book of the Maccabees not part of the Jewish Bible? Some would say good old-fashioned politics dictated that result. The triumph of the Jewish freedom fighters over the leading world power at the time led to the establishment of the Hasmonean Dynasty. In later years, that priestly monarchy fell out of favor with the people and became part of the Christological framework. So in a sense, Christians celebrate Hanukkah by accepting the Book of the Maccabees. The similarity of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is lost to most when Hanukkah falls, as it traditionally does, around Christmastime. The story of the Christian savior trumps the story of the ancient Jewish uprising against tyranny.
Thanksgiving is supposed to commemorate the first feast of the Pilgrims enjoyed in harmony with their native-American neighbors. No one had ever celebrated this so-called meal or made it into a holiday until hundreds of years later. Scholars believe that there may in fact have been a peaceful gathering of Pilgrims and native-Americans during that first formal encounter between the two peoples. Within 50 years of the Pilgrims’ landing, the Englishmen were at war with the native-Americans, killing as many as they could to the extent that the “savages” were not already decimated by European diseases. The history between the settlers of the Americas and the native population was anything but peaceful and happy. Blood was spilled more often than bread was broken.
What is important about Thanksgiving, is the modern notion of “giving” and “thanks.” The original “Thanksgiving” was a precursor to shame and embarrassment that even made George Washington feel uncomfortable. Washington supported tribal areas within the United States, much like the natives in Canada came to enjoy in recent times. Washington’s view on native-Americans was disregarded, just as his questions about slavery were swept away by virulent forces of Colonial parochialism and jingoism.
The Pilgrims and the early Colonists, for all of their other failings, did see themselves as establishing the New Israel. Moses in America, by Bruce Feiler, is a fascinating look at the influence of Moses on American social and political life. The first seal proposed for the United States was to show Moses splitting the Red Sea with a Hebrew inscription. The Pilgrims and other early Colonists were escaping terrible persecution at the hands of mainstream Protestants and Catholics in Europe to establish a new Garden of Eden in the Americas. Those early settlers saw themselves as freedom fighters in the tradition of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel because he “fought with God and with men and have prevailed.” Genesis 32:28.
Thanksgiving and Hanukkah have a lot more in common than Hanukkah and Christmas. Both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah share the theme of triumphal success over adversity and a new opportunity for peace and freedom. Hanukkah, of course, celebrates the miracle of oil lasting for a protracted period of time when the Temple was cleansed of pagan influences. That is a nice story, but the crucial importance of the holiday is that it still speaks to us today about the eternal struggle for independence and the right to decide one’s own destiny. The Jews would not accept the pagan god Dagon in their Temple. Maccabee meant the “hammer” whose testament was inscribed with the words “Maccabee, destroyer of tyrants.” Megillat Antiochus.
The Pilgrims also saw themselves not only as the new Israelites fighting for freedom in a new land, but also as those who had a right to rebel against the tyranny practiced against them. Free from the shackles of European Christianity, the new settlers in the vast expanse of North America would be able to determine their own destiny. The fact that the legacy of the newcomers conflicted with the local population was of no relevance. The native-Americans were not part of the vision of those who were seeking escape from their own form of European bondage. What was good and right for the newcomers was not to be shared with the native populations already in the Americas.
There are those who only believe that there is a relationship between Hanukkah and Christmas. There is none. Christmas was originally a Pagan day appropriated by early Christianity to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is a crucial day on the Christian calendar and quintessentially important in the Christian Bible. Hanukkah has derived some importance in the Western world because of its calendar association with Christmas, but that is the only reason.
When my family celebrates Hanukkah/Thanksgiving, we will bask in the knowledge that our ancestors, both Jews and Christians, dedicated their principles to a new beginning predicated upon their understanding that freedom is a G-d given inalienable right to be fought for and enjoyed. We will give thanks for the privilege of celebrating these holidays with our friends and family, and we will try to find new ways to give back to a culture, society and ethic that has provided so much to all of us.
Rieders, Travis, Dohrmann, Mowrey, Humphrey & Waters
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Williamsport, PA 17701
(570) 323-8711 (telephone)
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Cliff Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.