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From Delayed Thanksgiving Days to a Celebration of Religious Freedom

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

American Jews will celebrate a double holiday this year as they first did 2,177 years ago.

November 28 of 2013 is Thanksgiving Day and the first full day of Hanukah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, which begins at sundown the previous night.

The last time the two holidays converged occurred 125 years ago, in 1888.

The next convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah will not happen until 2070, when the first night of Hanukkah — the holiday begins at sundown — will fall on Thanksgiving Day.

The American holiday of Thanksgiving was originally inspired by the Biblical holiday of Sukkot, a fall harvest pilgrimage festival of thanksgiving.

The pilgrimage festival of Sukkot during Biblical times was one of the two most important holidays in the Jewish year, especially for Jewish farmers. In Jewish sources it is often called “HeChag”—” “The Holiday.”

On Sukkot vast numbers of Jews traveled to Jerusalem to give thanks to God for the crops they had just harvested. Thus, the Temple was usually crowded with grateful worshippers rejoicing on Sukkot as at no other time of the year.

And then came the dreadful years of persecution by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king.

This was the first known attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last.

Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity, and the persecution of Muhammad and his followers by the majority of pagan Arabs in Makka.

All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp that once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God; lasts longer than anyone else thinks possible.

The history: In 200 BCE, King Antiochus III of Syria defeated Egypt and made the Land of Israel a part of the Seleucid Empire. King Antiochus III, wanting to conciliate his new Jewish subjects, guaranteed their right to "live according to their ancestral customs" and to continue to practice their religion in the Temple of Jerusalem.

However in 175 BCE, his son Antiochus IV invaded Judea to put in power a pro Syrian high Priest. As the first century Jewish historian Josephus relates:

(In 167 BCE Antiochus IV,who named himself 'Manifest God'): “came upon the Jews with a great army, took their city (Jerusalem) by force, slew a great multitude of those that favored Egypt, and sent out his soldiers to plunder the Jews without mercy. He also polluted the temple (erecting an idol in it that looked like himself, and thus) put a stop to the daily offerings (to God) for three years and six months."

He also banned circumcision and ordered pigs to be sacrificed on the altar of the Temple.

This provoked a large-scale revolt led by a man called Judah Maccabee and his four brothers.

When the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and completed the purification of the Holy Temple, they were faced with a problem.

The Greek polytheists who had taken over the Holy Temple for the previous three and a half years, were still in control of the Temple a few months before, in the month of Tishri, Thus, for a fourth year Jews had refused to go on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot.

Sukkot: Now that the Temple was theirs again, their first act was to belatedly celebrate Sukkot, two months later, in the month of Kislev.

Celebrating the Sukkot pilgrimage in Jerusalem's Holy Temple was so important, that it was “better late than never.”

They marched around the Temple alter seven times, and sang the Hallel Psalms as on any Sukkot, celebrating for eight days, the length of Sukkot. They participated in the Sukkot torchlight processions.

The torchlight procession and large golden oil lamps burning in the Temple Courtyard lit up the entire city of Jerusalem. (Mishnah Sukkah 4:9-5:5)

The first eight-day celebration of the Maccabees was a belated Sukkot celebration.

Hanukah: The following year, the new Festival of Hanukkah, celebrating the purification and rededication (Hanukah) of the Temple, borrowed some of the rituals of Sukkot from that first celebration—the eight days, the recital of Hallel Psalms, the lights brightly glowing (eventually in every Jewish home).

The Second Book of Maccabees, originally written in Greek, was clearly intended for distribution to the Jewish communities living outside the land of Israel, especially in the bustling commercial Mediterranean port city of Alexandria in Egypt.

The purpose of Second Maccabees is clearly stated in the two letters that open the book, urging the Jews of Alexandria to adopt this new festival, which it appears, they were slow to accept.

The author claims that his source for the history of the Maccabean war was a (now lost) larger five-volume history by one Jason of Cyrene.

Chapter 10:1-8 of Second Maccabees describes the purification of the Temple as follows:

Judah the Maccabee and his men, under the Lord’s leadership, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. … After purifying the Temple, they made a new altar... a new fire and … offered sacrifices and incense … lit the lamps. … On the anniversary of the very same day on which the Temple had been defiled, the 25th of Kislev, they now purified the Temple.

They celebrated joyfully for eight days, just as on Sukkot, knowing that (a few months before) on Sukkot they had (been unable to celebrate at the Temple) and had spent the festival (hiding) like wild animals in the mountains and caves. That is why they came... and sang hymns of praise (Hallel), to the One Who had given them the victory that had brought about the purification of His Temple.

By a vote of the community they decreed that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate these festival days every year. (Second Maccabees 10:1-8)

Thus Hanukah, which started as a delayed Sukkot harvest pilgrimage festival, became an additional holiday on which we can give thanks to God, not just for the fruits of the land, but even more important, for the fruits of attaining freedom to worship according to our own religious principles.

Thus, on this once in a lifetime occasion, when both holidays overlap. we should be twice as grateful as usual, for our good fortune.

The historical part of this essay was mostly prepared by Rabbi Manual Gold.