The Holy Father has encouraged Catholics to learn more about the Jewish faith. We are pleased to announce a new series called Ask the Rabbi. Rabbi Gregory Metzger from the Kol Tuv community in Los Angeles answers your questions here:
I always thought of Hannukah as the Jewish Christmas. But this year I hear it begins on Thanksgiving. Can you tell me what’s going on?
Dear Curious Catholic,
Thank you for asking a question that opens the door to some interesting learning. There are many things to explore in the coincidence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. Not the least of which is the Hebrew calendar and its adherence to the biblical commandments to honor and keep sacred and holy days of praise, remembrance and thanksgiving.
How can Hanukkah coincide with Thanksgiving in 2013, and then coincide with Christmas in 2016? Three factors come into play: The first is that there are two calendars – the Gregorian calendar which is a solar calendar and the Hebrew calendar which is a lunar calendar. The third is that Thanksgiving is not based on a calendar date, but rather on the 4th Thursday in November. The variance in these calendars means that Hanukkah, which is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar.
Is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas?
The roots of Hanukkah and Christmas are unrelated; however, the customs of these holidays, particularly in America, have become very similar. The deeply meaningful, religious and spiritual aspects of these holidays are often eclipsed by the commercialization.
Is Hanukkah the Jewish Thanksgiving?
Hanukkah is an ancient holiday. Thanksgiving is a “modern” holiday whose name comes from the ancient biblical offering made in gratitude for the blessings that G-d bestows. Gratitude is central to Jewish living and we have much for which we are grateful. Hanukkah is an expression of this gratitude.
So, what is Hanukkah?
The word Hanukkah means dedication and is a celebration of the miracles that took place many years ago when a small band of faithful Jews, the Maccabees prevailed against the world’s most powerful empire and “Re-dedicated” the holy temple to the service of G-d. King Antiochus IV, set out to destroy the Jewish religion, banning Jewish religious study and worship. He desecrated the holy temple in Jerusalem, installing a statue of Zeus.
Today, we are grateful for the freedom to worship and to study as Jews. This is truly a miracle, as in each generation powerful forces have conspired to destroy the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. We believe that the miracle of our very existence testifies to the existence of a relationship with G-d and our continued observance of Jewish tradition testifies to the faith of the Jewish People to hold sacred that relationship.
The holiday of Hanukkah is not so much a remembrance of a military victory as it is a celebration of miracles, a recognition of The Maker of miracles and an opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to those things in our life that truly matter.
Kindling Hanukkah Lights – The custom of lighting a Hanukkiya (special Menorah or candelabra), is in itself a testimony to the miracle that happened when the Holy Temple was rededicated. A day’s worth of oil, all the oil available, burned for eight days. We light a first candle and then an additional candle each day to “bring more light” into the world and to “testify” on behalf of the miracle.
Hanukkah Gifts – The custom of gifts on Hanukkah also has its roots in “dedication”. The practice began in 16th century (or earlier) Eastern Europe with poor scholars, students and teachers receiving gifts of money to assist them with their “dedication” (Hanukkah) to “education” (Hinnukh). This custom expanded to grandparents and parents to rewarding their children on Hanukkah for dedication to Jewish study. Today, as with Christmas, in many homes the custom bears little resemblance to its meaningful origins.
Hanukkah Foods – Latkes (Potato pancakes) and Sufganiyot (Jelly Doughnuts) are popular treats which are symbolic because they are fried in oil, reminding us of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days. There is an older and perhaps more holy tradition of eating cheese on Hanukkah. This ancient tradition recognizes the biblical heroine from the Book of Judith and celebrates women’s roles and “dedication” in the struggle for Jewish religious and national freedom.
Dreidels – The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top that children play with on Hanukkah. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter. These letters are an acronym,”נ.ג.ה.ש.“ for the Hebrew words Nes Gadol Haya Sham, “A great miracle happened there”, referring to the miracle of the oil.
– Rabbi Gregory Metzger