The eight-day ancient Jewish celebration called Hanukkah, or festival of lights, begins this week in a rare link to the relatively modern American holiday called Thanksgiving.
The last time the first day of Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving was in the 1800s. The next time it will happen is in the year 79,811. That’s not a misprint — it won’t happen again for another 77,798 years.
Hanukkah, always celebrated on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, usually falls in December. Occasionally, it may begin in November.
“But this is really early for a Hanukkah to arrive,” said Rabbi Andra Greenwald, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Modesto. It’s a timely date, she said, because “there are so many of the components in Hanukkah for which we have to be thankful.”
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According to chabad.org, a Jewish educational website, in 165 BCE, Israel was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who sought to forcefully Hellenize the people of Israel. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews called the Maccabees defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth and reclaimed the holy temple in Jerusalem. But it had been desecrated by the Greeks, and when the people wanted to light the temple’s menorah, they found only a one-day supply of holy olive oil left. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days until new, ritually pure oil could be prepared.
So Hanukkah celebrates those two events and makes Jews thankful for the freedom to worship freely and the miracle of the oil, Greenwald said.
The traditional Jewish menorah has seven branches, but the special menorah used for Hanukkah, called a Hanukkiah, has nine branches — eight symbolizing the eight nights the oil burned and a ninth candle called a helper candle, or shamash, which is used to light the other candles. On the first night, one candle and the helper candle are lit. The second night, two candles and the helper candle are used, and so on. Each night, the families leave the candles lit until they burn themselves out, Greenwald said.
“We don’t blow them out,” she said. “While they’re lit, we’re supposed to have joy and love with one another. We eat food cooked in oil. The traditional food is latkes (potato pancakes) traditionally served with applesauce and sour cream. In Israel, the traditional food is called sufganiyot. That’s a jelly doughnut that’s also deep fried.”
Besides foods cooked in oil, there are decorations, visits with friends and special games, such as spinning the dreidel, or top. There are four Jewish letters on the top that represent four words that mean, “A great miracle happened there.” Players will use pennies, nuts, raisins or other small items to play the game, putting the items into a pot or taking them out, depending on what letter turns up. Children as well as adults enjoy the game, Greenwald said.
Then there is the gelt (money or coins). In years past, grandparents or parents would give children a coin, Greenwald said Now, it is usually chocolate-filled gold coins. And, because of the holiday’s proximity to Christmas, gifts are often exchanged, especially in the United States.
While the lighting of the Hanukkiah and the food cooked in oil are universally celebrated, Greenwald said, “Some families may have their own traditions. Our family reads a particular story toward the end of Hanukkah. We watch to see if all the candles burn out at the very same moment each night. In some families, they may open a gift each night. Or they may eat potato latkes on the first night or the last night. They may decide that one of the nights they’re going to volunteer in the community.”
But every night, she said, they say a blessing as the candles are lit, thanking God for the miracles he performed for their ancestors and for them.
“We have an opportunity to be very miracle-focused when we light the candle, when we eat the food cooked in oil, and especially when we read the letters on the dreidel,” Greenwald said. “In addition for God to help us at that (historic) time, he allows so many of us to worship freely in this day. Hopefully, that will become worldwide and everyone can worship freely. Second is that maybe it reminds us in this convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving to be thankful of miracles, not only of the oil, but maybe that miracles keep happening every day and to be thankful for those.”
Miracles, she said, such as having healthy children, living in a country with classrooms for all, being able to own cars and to get to the synagogue safely, all things that people sometimes take for granted.
“There are still miracles,” she said. “We need to be reminded of them and be grateful for them.”