You probably know that November 28 is Thanksgiving … but did you know it is also the first day (and second night) of Hanukkah? These two holidays coincided only once before (125 years ago). And they will not do so again until the year 79,811 but I think the Messiah will return well before then!
That bit of trivia has me thinking about the wonderful parallels between our American holiday of Thanksgiving and the Jewish Festival of Hanukkah. There are many, but none more remarkable than the fact that both festivals draw their origin from a third celebration, Sukkot (pronounced sueCOAT) or the Feast of Tabernacles.
The Feast of Tabernacles is the last and greatest of the seven biblical feasts commanded in Leviticus 23 – a time for God’s people to rejoice and give thanks for His provision during the final autumn harvest season. No wonder it was the best attended, most jublilant of all the festivals God instituted! Sukkot became a wonderful vehicle for spiritual renewal throughout Israel’s history. I don’t know that either Hanukkah or Thanksgiving is commonly viewed as such today, but perhaps if we see their historical connections, their coinciding this month will become a great occasion to pursue our own spiritual renewal.
How is the original story and celebration of Hanukkah interwoven with the Feast of Tabernacles? During the intertestamental period the Jewish nation had come under the domination of a Syrian despot called Antiochus, who was on a campaign to Hellenize the people by force. He outlawed Torah observances such as circumcision and kosher laws. He desecrated the holy temple, sacrificing unclean animals on the altar, erecting idols of Zeus and the Greek Pantheon and generally making the focal point of Jewish worship into a center for pagan religion.
The temple was defiled and the people were defeated – except for a small band of guerilla soldiers known as the Maccabees. But these guerilla soldiers fighting in the Judean hills kept the flame of hope alive for the Jewish nation. Miraculously, after a series of protracted skirmishes lasting for three years, these Maccabean warriors recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated the temple. It is this act of rededicating the temple that brings us to the connection with the Feast of Tabernacles.
It is recorded in the Book of Maccabees:
Now Maccabee and his followers, under the leadership of the Lord, recaptured the temple and the city, and pulled down the altars erected by the aliens in the marketplace. Now it so happened that the cleansing of the sanctuary took place on the very day on which it had been profaned by aliens on the 25th day of the same month, which is Kislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with gladness (like a) Feast of Tabernacles remembering how not long before during the Feast of Tabernacles they had been wandering like wild beasts in the mountains in caves and were unable to celebrate it. So bearing wands wreathed with leaves and fair boughs and palms, they offered hymns of praise to Him who had prospered the cleansing of His own place” (2 Maccabees 10).
While the rededication took place on the 25th of Kislev, the ninth month of the Jewish calendar in the year 164 BC, it is apparent that the initial observance of Hanukkah was viewed as a belated (by two months) celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. Just as the Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated for eight days, so the feast of Hanukkah is observed for eight days. Similarly, what Maccabees describes as wreathed wands and fair boughs and palms sound very much like references to the lulav, the four species used during the original Feast of Tabernacles. In fact, the same Greek word for those wands, thyrsoi, was also used by Josephus to describe the lulav of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Of course the Feast of Hanukkah took on a life of its own, with separate traditions and ceremonies. But that should not obscure the point that, originally, it was a vehicle for renewal and spiritual revival among the Jewish people, and one that centered on gratitude to God.
Similarly, in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock patterned the first Thanksgiving after the Feast of Tabernacles. Fleeing England in search of religious freedom, they spent time in Holland where they had significant interaction with a large Sephardic Jewish community that had also found shelter there.
The Puritans braved the perilous crossing of the Atlantic, but nearly half of their number had died by the time of that first harvest celebration. The settlers saw England’s “Home Harvest” celebration as pagan and wanted to develop their own harvest celebration. They drew upon the parallels between their circumstances and that of ancient Israel.
Just as the Maccabees were celebrating deliverance from Syrian domination, so the Puritans saw their celebration as deliverance from the religious persecution they experienced in England under King James I.
No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the Hebrew nation. They themselves were the children of Israel; America was their Promised Land; the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea; the Kings of England were the Egyptian pharaohs; the American Indians the Canaanites (or the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel); the pact of the Plymouth Rock was God’s holy Covenant; and the ordinances by which they lived were the Divine Law …[They] saw themselves as instruments of Divine Providence, a people chosen to build their new commonwealth on the Covenant entered into at Mount Sinai” (The Bible and Civilization, 1973, p. 236).
Inspired by their understanding of the Scriptures, the Pilgrims instituted Thanksgiving as a means of acknowledging God’s provision and His presence with them in the new land. I don’t accept their view of America as the new promised land, nor American Christians as the new Israel – much less Native Americans as Canaanites! But I do appreciate the way they applied the teachings of the Bible to their own circumstances. The Pilgrims were right to recognize that God gives us times of celebration to renew our awareness of His presence, and to inspire gratitude for His provision.
The Maccabees and the Pilgrims drew upon the richness of God’s Word and the power of His festival celebrations to enliven true worship and gratitude – and so can we. It is true that each and every day can be a time of renewal in the Lord, but this year affords us a very special opportunity. We have this once in a lifetime “three-in-one festival,” the unique convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, both of which have roots in Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles.
So let’s make this year’s holidays a special time of celebration, marked as it was by the Pilgrims and the Maccabees. The Maccabees fought those who forced false worship upon them, and the Puritans fled those who imposed unreasonable religious restrictions. What about us? We can be grateful for the religious freedom that we have, but there is a prevalent culture that would turn us from worshiping in Spirit and in Truth, and that culture can exert a mighty pressure. Praise God if you know you have been delivered from whatever tempts us or competes with the worship that rightly belongs to God. What better way to thank Him than by reading Scriptures, singing songs and hymns and enjoying a great festive meal in honor of the One who delivers us all from bondage to sin through our Savior, Jesus.
This was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article published October 4, 2013
You can learn why this has never happened before at http://jonathanmizrahi.blogspot.com/2013/01/hanukkah-and-thanksgiving-once-in.html