Only a week ago, I made the four-hour drive down to Nashville to spend Thanksgiving with my family. Luckily, my sister’s family from West Virginia made the drive as well, and I was able to spend some time with my nieces—always a highlight of the holiday season for me. After returning to Cincinnati, I got a phone call from my sister making sure I had gotten home safe and letting me know that they were safe and sound in West Virginia. We began talking about the next time we would all be together and ideas for Hanukah presents, when I heard my six-year-old niece in the background yell out, “Yay we’re going to have another Thanksgiving!” We laughed and explained the difference, but after thinking about it some more, I realized that while she may not have intended it, her mistake was not unfounded.
Whether intended or not, the American holiday of Thanksgiving and the Biblical festival of Sukkot share a great deal in common. For one, they are both fall harvest festivals, meant to celebrate and express gratitude for the bountiful crop yielded by the past warm months. As such, they lead us to come together as families and communities to remember that the world around us not only provides sustenance, but also that no harvest should be enjoyed without the warm company of those we love. For Americans and Jews alike, this also means recalling times when the roof over our head and food on our table were not a given—times when our ancestors fled their homelands in search of opportunity for their future descendants. Sukkot and Thanksgiving are times of gratitude, feasting, and family while remembering our humble beginnings.
The thematic connection between Thanksgiving and Sukkot seems largely self-evident, but the connection between Hanukah and Sukkot often goes largely unnoticed. Both are eight-day festivals and both mandate certain liturgical practices in traditional communities—namely the full recitation of hallel (a collection of passages from Psalms) throughout the eight days. If we recall the Hanukah story, we will remember that the festival celebrates the rededication (chanukah) of the Temple in Jerusalem. Without a functioning Temple, our ancestors were unable to observe Biblically-mandated festivals like Sukkot. Therefore, many scholars argue that the festival of Hanukah originated as both a celebration of the military victory of the Hasmoneans as well as a late observance of Sukkot after the rededication of the Temple. Regardless, as we read in tractate Shabbat 21b of the Babylonian Talmud, it is a time of hallel (praise) and hoda’ah (thanksgiving).
As we continue through this season of thanksgiving and praise, let us continue to recall all for which we are thankful in our lives. Whether it is the bounty of the land we celebrate on Sukkot or the freedom to practice our tradition without persecution on the upcoming holiday of Hanukah, may we offer our sincerest gratitude both in word and in deed. May we also take note of those for whom the holiday season is a time of great difficulty and uncertainty. We need only recall the stories of our ancestors to remember that the freedoms and bounty we enjoy should also extend to all in our larger community.
Wishing everyone a Happy and Warm Hanukah!
Ross Z. Levy, Student Rabbi