As holiday lights festoon homes across America and menorahs come out of storage, most Americans think of Hanukkah and Christmas as calendar comrades keeping one another company in December. In some years, that is true, while in others Hanukkah falls earlier, coming out much closer to Thanksgiving, a holiday with which it has far more in common – both were holy days established to express gratitude to God.
Hanukkah was established a little over 2,000 years ago, as ancient Jewish tradition records: “The next year those eight days were appointed a festival with praise and thanksgiving to God.”
On Dec. 12, 1621, one of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow, wrote a letter in which he described the first Thanksgiving, which had taken place a little earlier. In a style reminiscent of how religious Jews pepper their sentences with “Baruch HaShem” – “Blessed be God,” Winslow wrote:
Our wheat did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn … And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty …”
Though America’s founders linked bountiful plenty to God, some schools are teaching their students that our nation’s first Thanksgiving was a secular – rather than religious – event. Distorting facts to fit secular mythology, teachers misinform young Americans that Edward Winslow was not thanking God, but the local Indians. Inconveniently for today’s secular fundamentalists, God remained central to Thanksgiving well past colonial times. In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be an annual American holiday with words which should resonate with comfortable familiarity in all Jewish ears:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience …
Lincoln’s words still ring with Old Testament fervor yet many of us turn the joyful solemnity of both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving into childish extravaganzas. The holiday of Hanukkah offers an example of how we err.
Most American Jews are content to experience Hanukkah through olden tales our children are told at Hebrew school, or through a brief candle-lighting ceremony. If we are particularly traditional we might devote one evening of the eight-day festival to eating oil-drenched potato latkes and playing spin-the-dreidel with our children. We would be more likely to believe that Santa slides down the chimney on Christmas Eve than to accept that observing Hanukkah can be intellectually challenging for adults and enormously relevant to our busy lives.
Yet we would be wrong. With our long-ago conquest of secularism, we Jews should be the ones leading the protest when America’s secular culture infantilizes religion. Consider just one small part of Hanukkah’s history as an example.
In Temple times, the Hasmoneans, led by Judah Macabee, rebelled against their Greek oppressors who, helped by their secular Jewish allies, had ransacked the Jerusalem Temple. The high priest, who was preparing to rededicate the Temple and relight the menorah, found one small jar of olive oil. The Talmud indicates that this small jar of oil, sufficient to burn for only one day, miraculously kept the menorah burning for eight full days.
Jewish tradition poses the following conundrum. Although the menorah burned for eight days, there was indeed enough oil for the first day. This means that only the last seven days involved a miracle. For the oil to burn during the first day was perfectly natural. Therefore why is Hanukkah an eight-day festival?
Properly, it ought to last for only seven days to commemorate the seven-day miracle. One answer is that the first day of the holiday highlights the real miracle – namely that oil reacts with oxygen in a remarkable chemical reaction that provides us with light and heat. Hanukkah’s eight-day celebration teaches us all to see the miracles in everyday phenomena such as the availability of fuel for our energy needs.
It is all too easy to ignore the miracle of God’s blessing of bounty. Using the laws of physics, the Hasmonean heroes assumed there was insufficient oil to last for the necessary eight days. Then they learned that the laws of God dictate the laws of physics. They learned that secularism, the legacy of their Greek enemies, contracts the bounty of the universe while God with His gift of infinite limitlessness expands it.
To this day, we Jews light one additional flame each night of Hanukkah partly to inject into our souls the idea that through God, each day can bring more and more, not less and less. It is not an accident that during the original Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims expressed gratitude to God for doing away with hunger and shortage. Neither is it an accident that America’s high priests of secular fundamentalism preach a doctrine of shortage. As secularists, they must obsess with almost fundamentalist irrationality, on the need for conservation. This, in spite of the fact that every historical parallel from Thomas Malthus’ notorious 1798 “Essay on Population,” all the way to the examples below, ridicule this gloomy sacrament of secularism.
America used to depend on whale oil for lighting. During the early 19th century, pundits warned that since whales were being harvested at an ever increasing rate, America would soon go dark. They recommended extinguishing all lanterns no later than 10 p.m. in order to conserve the remaining whale oil. They were right about running out of whale oil, but they were wrong about America going dark. In 1859, a railroad conductor called Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pa. America remained brightly lit, but by lanterns that burned paraffin instead of whale oil.
Until the early 18th century, colonial homes were heated mostly by burning wood. Forests were vanishing and the rapidly growing colonies were running out of firewood. Eliminate immigration and ration firewood, was the call of the day. They were right about running out of firewood but it didn’t matter because we soon found and began burning a far superior fuel called coal.
William Jevons, an economics professor at University College, London, became famous on account of a paper he published in 1865. It was titled, “The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines.” He predicted that British prosperity would end within 50 years when the nation ran out of coal and recommended an industrial slowdown in order to conserve what coal was left. We are just about into 2004 and Britain is still mining and burning coal, although most of its energy needs are safely and bountifully supplied by nuclear power.
During the 1980s, fax machines became ubiquitous and vast numbers of Americans installed additional phone lines to accommodate these handy devices. Again, saints of secularism like Paul Ehrlich, issued dire warnings about the price of copper. There was insufficient copper in the world to run two phone lines to every home. What would happen if people wanted three lines?
Surely the price of copper would rise to reflect the shortage and industrial development would be fatally curtailed. They were right about there not being enough copper. They were wrong about its price. The miracle of God-given human ingenuity made copper as redundant as whale oil. We began sending data through impossibly thin glass filaments. Glass is made from sand and we are in no danger of running out of that particular commodity.
It only seemed that we lacked sufficient copper, whale oil or wood. In reality, our God-given ingenuity developed exciting new technology that eliminated our need for each commodity just as it was becoming scarce.
Hanukkah’s miracle was that, day after day, the Temple’s menorah just kept on burning in spite of an apparent shortage of fuel – a metaphor, surely, for all apparent shortages that can be overcome with faith. Hanukkah invites us all to express gratitude to the Creator whose beneficence is boundless. It stimulates discussions that can spur our spiritual growth. It reminds us that with His gift of creativity, challenges become optimistic opportunities to partner with God in creatively solving all material shortage.
Remembering that Thanksgiving and Hanukkah go together adds adult appeal to religion because a cardinal theme of Hanukkah expressed in its liturgy is giving thanks to God. ” … And they established these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and to praise Your Great Name.”