Thursday, November 7, 2013


     There has been a great deal of reporting on the convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, which will be taking place this November.  As an interesting aside, both holidays are based on the Jewish festival of Sukkot: the fall festival of Thanksgiving.  For the pilgrims, who knew their Bible, they wished to celebrate a version of Sukkot.  And for the Hasmoneans (the group led by Judah the Macabbee), they wished to reinstitute Sukkot by rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem after they reconquered it from the Selucid-Greeks.  Hence the eight day festival of Chanukah, which is very much modeled after the eight days of Sukkot.

            However, given the curious anomaly of Thanksgiving and Chanukah overlapping, I do think it is worth taking a moment to talk about the Jewish system of calendaration.  This is because our calendar is one of the more complex systems out there, which is why our holidays seem to occur either earlier or later during the Gregorian year.

            This is because, according to the Torah, we follow the lunar calendar.  Part of this is because the cycles of the moon are much easier to follow than the seasons dictated by the sun.  You may have noticed that many of our holidays seem to fall either when there is a new moon or a full moon.  This is of course, by design. 

The months of the Hebrew calendar are either twenty-eight or twenty-nine days long.  This means that unless we adjust our calendar it will not line up with the Gregorian or solar calendar.  This would not be a problem except we also follow the agrarian calendar because we have a fall festival (Sukkot), a spring festival (Passover) and a summer festival (Shavuot).  These festivals all need to fall in the calendar around the appropriate time of year. 

            Basically what this means is that we have to periodically readjust the calendar to make it work.  But there is an additional problem.  The problem is that there are also certain days holidays cannot fall.  For example: Yom Kippur can never begin on a Thursday evening.  This is because traditional households would never have the chance to prepare for Shabbat.  So except, for Shabbat, we determine, to some degree, the days on which certain holidays take place.

            For all intents and purposes, what has arisen is a mathematical formula to keep track of the comings and goings of our observances.  The only day that is consistent is Shabbat, which falls on the seventh day, no matter what.  Otherwise, to keep it all straight, we add seven leap years every nineteen years to readjust the calendar.

            This is why Chanukah falls so early this year.  We have not had a leap month recently, so the holidays have been taking place earlier and earlier during the solar year.  In 5774, both the holidays and Chanukah will take place about as early as they possibly can during the Gregorian year.  Add to that, November having an additional Thursday, and this is why you end up with Chanukah and Thanksgiving overlapping.  According to some estimates, this will not happen again for another thousand years.

            If you are confused, not to worry, there is a simple solution.  Buy a Hebrew calendar or a Hebrew calendar app, go to Hebcal, or download the new Har Sinai Congregational app.  The Hebrew calendar is the same on all of them.  And make sure to enjoy your turkey with latkes, and don’t forget to light the menorah at halftime.  In my family, we are going to try a new experiment: the tur-bris-ke or turkey stuffed with brisket stuffed with latkes.  What better way to celebrate the two festivals based off our fall festival of Thanksgiving.  Chag Sameach everyone!

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