By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Thanksgiving is always on the fourth Thursday of November. This year, the federal legal holiday of Thanksgiving is on Thursday, November 28. However, that day on the Hebrew calendar is the 25th of Kislev, which is the first day of Chanukah. The first of eight Chanukah candle lightings is on the preceding evening.
In the past, the annual convention of Agudath Israel of America has routinely been scheduled to take place on the Thanksgiving weekend. The Agudah’s convention is the most important annual Orthodox Jewish event of its type. This year, because of Chanukah, the convention weekend was moved up to take place beginning Thursday, November 14, through Sunday, November 17, at the Hilton hotel in Woodcliff Lake, NJ.
The next time that the dates of Thanksgiving and Chanukah would coincide is almost 80,000 years from now—in the year 79,811 to be precise. By implication, it is such a rare event that it never occurred previously. Yet, surprisingly, Thanksgiving did fall during Chanukah in 1888. This invites exploration and review.
The Hebrew calendar is not exclusively a lunar calendar, but rather a combination of solar and lunar cycles. Thus, by adding an extra month of Adar seven times during every 19-year cycle (every 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th year), Pesach is maintained in the spring season, as mandated in Parashas Re’eih (Devarim 16:1), where the Torah states: “Guard (shamor) the month of spring (Chodesh haAviv), and make Passover to the L‑rd your G‑d, because it was in the month of spring that the L‑rd your G‑d took you out of Egypt in the night.” The year 5774 (mostly 2014) is the 17th year in the 19-year Adar II addition cycle.
In our daily prayers, we quote Kerisos 6 and Yerushalmi Yoma 4:5: “The Rabbis taught: How is the incense mixture formulated? 368 maneh were in it: 365 corresponding to the days of the solar year—a maneh for each day, half in the morning and half in the afternoon, and three extra maneh . . .” (A maneh is a measurement of weight.) Plainly, the rabbis were quite familiar with and adapted the solar calendar where applicable.
The most commonly used calendar worldwide is the Gregorian, introduced in 1582. For the sake of convenience in international trade, most countries adopted the Gregorian as their official calendars. Greece finally adopted it in 1923.
According to calendar experts, the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar drift away from each other four days in every thousand years. Chanukah is next set to fall in a November in the year 2146/5907. That date will be November 28, but on a Monday. Since Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday, Chanukah and Thanksgiving will never again meet.
The 1888/5649 Chanukah–Thanksgiving Day previously cited needs explanation. Thanksgiving was first celebrated by Pilgrims and Puritans in Plymouth, in pre-Colonial Massachusetts, presumably on Saturday, November 6, 1621. George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide Thanksgiving celebration in the United States of America, marking November 26, 1789, which was a Thursday, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.”
From President Washington until President Lincoln, the date on which the Thanksgiving holiday was observed varied from state to state. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date. Thanksgiving was first celebrated on the same date by all states in 1863 by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of the Civil War, he proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November in an attempt to foster a sense of unity between the Northern and Southern states. Because of the Confederacy’s refusal to recognize Lincoln’s authority at that time, a nationwide Thanksgiving date was not realized until post-war Reconstruction was completed in the 1870s.
On December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday. If President Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving proclamation were retroactive, Thanksgiving would not have been during Chanukah in 1888.
Another calculation attribute is the secular consideration that a day begins and ends at midnight. Thus, when we light Chanukah candles on Wednesday evening, November 27, it is not yet Thanksgiving. However, the lighting of the first night of Chanukah candles on Thursday evening in 2071 and in 2166 will actually be within the 24 hours of Thanksgiving. The first “day” of Chanukah in those years will be on Friday. Both of those Thursdays will be the fourth Thursday of November.
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In years past, the question of Orthodox Jews celebrating Thanksgiving Day and eating turkey has always come into discussion. The turkey is almost universally accepted as kosher, though there are some (very few) that decline eating it because of the mesorah aspect. The turkey was presumably unknown halachically in the times of the Temple and does not have a mesorah (tradition) of uninterrupted use by our forefathers. (The mesorah consideration also applies to tuna fish.)
The turkey has also generated halachic consideration in regard to its being eaten on Thanksgiving Day, a holiday that some consider a religious holiday and possibly proscribing its consumption on that day, so as not to be participating in or celebrating a non-Jewish religious meal or festival. Turkey, after all the considerations and deliberations, is eaten by virtually all observant Jews throughout the world, every day of the year (except on fast days, of course). Most interesting: The country with the highest turkey consumption is Israel. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at email@example.com.