As holiday lights festoon homes across America and menorahs come out
of storage, most Americans think of Chanukah and Christmas as calendar
comrades keeping one another company in December. In some years that is
true while in others Chanukah 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.
Chanukah was established a little over two thousand years ago as
ancient Jewish tradition records, "The next year those eight days
were appointed a festival with praise and thanksgiving to God."
On December 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,
"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 a 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 Chanukah and Thanksgiving into
childish extravaganzas. The holiday of Chanukah offers an example of how
Most American Jews are content to experience Chanukah 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 Chanukah can be
intellectually challenging for adults and enormously relevant to our
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
Chanukah'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
Chanukah 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. Chanukah'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 that 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
To this day we Jews light one additional flame each night of Chanukah
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
turning out extinguishing all lanterns no later than ten o'clock 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,
Pennsylvania. 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 fire wood. 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
entitled 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 fifty 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.
Chanukah'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.
Chanukah 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 Chanukah go together adds adult appeal to religion because a
cardinal theme of Chanukah expressed in its liturgy is giving thanks to
God. ".And they established these eight days of Chanukah to give
thanks and to praise Your Great Name."
Happy Hannukkah Holiday Ideas
The celebration of Hannukkah is a time
that Jewish families look forward to all year. Here are some suggestions
for celebrating the eight-day Festival of Lights.
Six Steps to Happier Holidays!
Follow these simple steps
to prepare for the holiday season: Get organized, create an spending strategy
and a "pay" plan, shop early and take advantage of sales, get creative when
gift-giving and do an inventory of what you need to make it through the
often hectic holidays. Being prepared ensures less stress and a happier
Making the Holidays More Meaningful
Have the holidays become too commercial for you? Are you feeling empty and unfulfilled during this time of the year? This year by making some simple changes you and your children can truly make the holidays more meaningful.