Picture this. You and your extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents – are gathered for a meal. The table is beautifully set, and a huge feast has been prepared.
Many wonderful smells mix in the air. Everyone is eager to eat. The dining room has been decorated with bright, fall-colored leaves and painted dreidels. There are pumpkins, gourds and a nine-branched menorah creating a centerpiece on the buffet. On the table is a large, steaming turkey next to a dish heaped with golden-brown latkes. Beside the corn bread is a loaf of warm challah. There is both cranberry sauce and applesauce in abundance. For dessert everyone will enjoy homemade pumpkin pie and sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts). Does this sound like your typical Hanukkah celebration? Probably not. What about a classic Thanksgiving meal? Nope. But this may be how some Jewish families choose to celebrate Hanukkah this year!
This year Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will overlap. But this event will not take place again until the year 79,811!
Thanksgiving has already become united with American Jewish culture. Perhaps the most poignant depiction of this appears in director Barry Levinson’s memorable scene in his movie Avalon. As the Polish-Jewish Krichinsky family awaits the arrival of the notoriously late Gabriel and his wife, Gabriel’s brother Sam decides to start the meal without them. When Gabriel arrives he bellows, "You cut the toikey without me?!" and storms out of the house.
And here’s some Jewish-Thanksgiving trivia: Luis de Torres, a Jewish physician who accompanied Columbus in 1492, gave the holiday bird its name. Upon seeing the large wild fowl for the first time, de Torres exclaimed "Tukki!" which is the Hebrew word for peacock.
Hanukkah and Thanksgiving actually fit together like a hand in a glove.
Like that beloved American holiday when families gather for fellowship, delicious dishes and grateful recollections, Hanukkah celebrates a similar (perhaps even more dramatic) story of victory, freedom and thankfulness.
The Hanukkah story began in 167 B.C. when a group of Judean freedom fighters led by Judah Maccabee rebelled against the Seleucid Empire. Though few in numbers, the y rose up against the tyrannical ruler, Antiochus IV, who wanted to eradicate Judaism. The bold rebellion was successful. The Maccabees won independence from the Seleucid Empire and founded the Hasmonean dynasty. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem as a place to worship God.
The first Hanukkah was actually a late Sukkot. The Book of Maccabees says that upon reclaiming the Temple, the Jewish people celebrated Sukkot (The Feast of Booths) two months late:
And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals" (2 Maccabees 10:6).
And the first Thanksgiving was probably modeled on Sukkot as well. When the Separatists (those wanting to separate from the Church of England) fled England in the early 1600s to escape religious persecution, they settled in Holland, known for its religious tolerance. A small group of Jews had settled there after being exiled from Spain in 1492. While in Holland, the Separatists (who later became known as the Pilgrims) had contact with this Sephardic Jewish community and most likely witnessed the harvest festival of Sukkot. After arriving in America, the Pilgrims thanked God for their first successful harvest with a three-day, Sukkot-like feast of celebration. Ninety Native Americans joined in the feast.
The parallels between these two holidays continue. Both the Maccabees and the Pilgrims suffered from their refusal to assimilate. While under the authority of the Seleucid Empire, the Jews were violently pressured to adopt Greek culture and killed if they did not. Antiochus IV made circumcision, possessing a Torah scroll and observing the Sabbath punishable by death. The Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving came after a year of extreme hardship. Out of the 102 that had traveled on the Mayflower, around half died during the first winter.
For those of us who acknowledge God, both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving celebrate his faithfulness. In the United States, we celebrate God’s providence in guiding the Pilgrims safely to these shores where they laid the foundation for the religious freedom we enjoy today. During Hanukkah, we thank God that throughout the centuries he has preserved the Jewish people.
But the religious freedom for which the Maccabees fought did not last. About 160 years after the first Hanukkah, Judea was under the control of Herod the Great and the Roman Empire. It was at this time in history that Yeshua (Jesus) lived. He grew up under oppressive Roman rule. (As a child, he had escaped Herod’s mad slaughter of many young Jewish males in Bethlehem.) And it was during one Hanukkah as he walked in the Temple, that he was surrounded by a crowd of Jewish religious leaders. They asked him to make it clear whether or not he was the Messiah.
The Gospel of John records:
Then came the Festival of Dedication [Hanukkah] at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The [Jewish religious leaders] who were there gathered around him, saying, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly" (John 10:22-24).
Yeshua responded clearly to this demand. He told them,
I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me …" (John 10:25).
The "works" Yeshua was referencing were his miracles. He had performed many, and yet most would not believe what he said about himself. Miracles were what Hanukkah was all about. According to tradition, when the Maccabees purged and rededicated the Temple, only a day’s worth of oil for the menorah was found. It would take eight days to prepare more. Miraculously, the meager supply of oil burned for eight days! Just as the miracle of the oil symbolized God’s protection of his people, Yeshua’s miracles testified as to who he was.
The New Testament is replete with stories of how Yeshua healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and even raised the dead. But when he uttered the words, "I and the Father are one," to those gathered around him on Hanukkah in Solomon’s Colonnade (John 10:30) he elevated his claim from miracle worker to God himself! Not surprisingly, his declaration was met with outrage by some and curiosity by others.
The false claim of deity had been made 200 years earlier by Antiochus IV, who believed he was a manifestation of the Greek god Zeus and took the title Epiphanes, which means "God Manifest." He plundered the Temple and sacrificed a pig on God’s altar. Now Yeshua was also claiming divinity. And for those who believed the prophecies of a coming Messiah, they would recognize the title, Emmanuel, which means "God with us" as coming straight from the teachings of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14). Jesus, like Antiochus, claimed to be God. But unlike the pagan ruler, Yeshua’s miracles gave credence to his claims.
Yet the Jewish people of the first century were expecting the Messiah to be a political hero like Judah Maccabee and to deliver them from Roman control. Yeshua claimed to set people free from their sins. He said of himself,
If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).
Judah Maccabee gained a great victory for the nation from religious oppression; Yeshua offered the individual a greater victory – one over sin and death! For those who believe, Yeshua was the hero who had come to bring everlasting life. But most did not recognize this, and that’s true today as well!
When we sit down to our Thanksgiving meal on the first day of Hanukkah this year, it’s a good thing to remember the great deliverance that God gave to those who were under the thumb of tyranny, and also to remember that in many parts of the world, people still suffer under oppressive rule. It’s also a good time to rejoice and reflect on the greater deliverance – from death to eternal life – that the Messiah Yeshua offers each one of us. Have a Happy Hanukkah/Thanksgiving!