Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Walk Article-Chanukah



Rabbi David Walk


            Jews in the United States are all abuzz about this year's unique coincidence of Chanukah with Thanksgiving.  Many are discussing the deep philosophic concerns involved in making Latkes out of turkey meat, white meat or dark? Apple sauce or cranberry sauce?  Should we stuff our sufganiot with pumpkin filling?  Oh, the intellectual issues!  On the other hand, there is a linguistic connection.  In Hebrew this American celebration is called Chag HaHoda'ah, from the word meaning thank you.  Astoundingly the Hebrew word for turkey is hodu which is basically the same root.  Ergo there must be a God!  Well, maybe that's not really a proof for the existence of the Almighty, but it is interesting.  However, the real overlap between these two very different commemorations is that when the Sages established the Chanukah holiday it was l'hodot u'l'hallel, to thank and praise.  I think that it's worthwhile to try to understand what must be done to accomplish that double mission.

            This expression, l'hodot u'l'hallel, is first found in the Talmud, when describing the development of the holiday of Chanuka:  A following year, they fixed these days to be Yomim Tovim, to say Hallel and Hoda'ah (Tractate Shabbat 21b).  The Sfat Emet asks what is the difference between hallel or praise and hoda'a or gratitude?  On a certain level they seem to be very similar, but in our Shmoneh Esreh prayer we say that the first three blessings are about praise (shevach) while the last three blessings are concerned with thanking God (beginning with modem anachnu loch).  So, while we do differentiate between them, what cognitive distinction can we draw?  The Sfat Emet in 1871 noticed this problem and states that apparently these two concepts are the same, and it requires an explanation to see the difference.  His answer is based upon an idea that he heard in part from his beloved grandfather, the first Gerrer Rebbe who began by explaining that praise comes from the attribute of Yosef, and that gratitude comes from the character of Yehuda.  Praise comes from enlightenment, clear and bright.  It is immediate and visceral.  Gratitude comes from a darker place.  Often it begins without a clear understanding of what happened.  Was this occurrence positive or negative?  Who exactly was the author of this event?  When there is awareness that the event and its fallout were from God's goodness and kindness, then there is an appropriate outpouring of thankfulness.  It is a slow awakening process, but ultimately more profound.

            The root of the word hoda'a means to acknowledge or, better, to admit.  An admission or confession in court is called modeh.  We use the same word when a repentant sinner confesses to God.  The Sfat Emet explains that this admission can only come after the individual has repaired that part of his personality where mistakes originate.  This requires the person to overcome the problematic side to one's nature, what our Sages called the yetzer hara.  This is quite challenging.  In the Chanukah story the people involved in this slow awakening included many who had thought of the Greek way of life as being superior to a Jewish life style.  That's why the development of the holiday wasn't immediate.  Instead it was a subsequent year.

            There is another unexpected connection between Thanksgiving and Chanukah.  When the Pilgrims celebrated that first thanksgiving many, including Pilgrim historian Caleb Johnson, believe that they modeled the commemoration after the Biblical holiday of Sukkot.  It makes sense.  Both are in the fall and mark the joy of bringing in the harvest.  Mayflower expert, Johnson suggests that the Pilgrims would have looked for a Biblical rationale for the observance, and Sukkot is a natural connection.  Others have noted that even though there were no Jews in England when the Pilgrims departed, these immigrants spent a few years in Holland before their departure for the New World.  There were Sephardic Jews living openly and prominently there and it's possible that there may have been contact.

            Less well known is the connection between Sukkot and Chanukah.  The Second Book of the Maccabees quotes from a letter sent about 125 BCE from the Hasmoneans to the leaders of Egyptian Jewry. The holiday referred to in the letter is called "The festival of Sukkot celebrated in the month of Kislev (December)," rather than Tishrei (September). Since the Jews were still in caves fighting as guerrillas on Tishrei, 164 BCE, they could not properly honor the eight-day holiday of Sukkot (and Shemini Atzeret), which is a Temple holiday; hence it was postponed until after the recapture of Jerusalem and the purification of the Temple, and was observed for eight days.  This may also help us to understand the opinion of Beit Shamai in the Talmud.  They suggested that the number of candles lit every day should diminish daily rather than increase as is our custom.  The Gemara then explains that they believed it should be like the bulls sacrificed on Sukkot, which did decrease by one each day of the chag.  Our custom sees Chanukah as a new and independent holiday, Beit Shamai still saw this celebration as a continuation of Sukkot.

            Finally, it was around the time of Chanukah that our people adopted the name Yehudim or Jews, replacing B'nei Yisroel or the Children of Israel.  This was partially because the tribe of Yehuda comprised the vast majority of the nation.  However, it is clear that we also understood the meaning of the name as being:  Those who acknowledge or admit.  We recognize the existence of God and are grateful.  Our name reflects our role.

            So, this is a great year to emphasize the original concept behind these two marvelous celebrations, namely gratitude for all that we have, for where we are and for who we are.  Let's celebrate the fact that we are Jews and live in a country which heartens our observance of Torah.  Besides Israel there's never been a better place for Jews than the U. S. of A.  Happy Thanksgiving and Chanukah Sameach!!