Is Thanksgiving Jewish?
This Dvar Torah about the Jewish connections to Thanksgiving was adapted from an article on The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah (Overland Park, Kansas) website as well as an article on the blog https://neshamah.net by Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff.
Is Thanksgiving Jewish? Of course! Want to know how? Read on.
On Thursday, we will pause and take a moment to say thanks. One of the perennial questions asked: Is Thanksgiving Jewish? We have a great answer, courtesy of Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University:
“Fleeing from persecution in England, the Pilgrim passengers on the Mayflower brought along their principal source of religious inspiration and comfort: the Bible. One particular edition of the Bible (published in 1618) is known to have been in the possession of none other than William Bradford, who would later serve as governor of Plymouth Colony. This edition was supplemented by the Annotations of a Puritan scholar named Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622).
Shortly after their landfall in November 1620, Bradford led the new arrivals in thanking God for the safe journey that brought them to America by reciting verses from Psalm 107. Curiously, Ainsworth’s Annotations to verse 32 of that psalm (“And let them exalt him in the church of the people, and praise him in the sitting of the elders”) contains the following remarks:
And from this Psalme, and this verse of it, the Hebrues have this Canon; Foure must confess (unto God)-- The sick, when he is healed; the prisoner when he is released out of bonds; they that goe down to sea, when they are come up (to land); and wayfaring men, when they are come to the inhabited land.
And they must make confession before ten men, and two of them wise men, Psal. 107. 32. And the manner of confessing and blessing is thus; He standeth among them and blesseth the Lord, the King eternal, that bounteously rewardeth good things unto sinners, etc. Maimony in Misn. Treat. Of Blessings, chap. 10, sect. 8.
If any of this looks familiar, it is because Ainsworth essentially copied over an English version of Maimonides’ comprehensive legal code, the Mishneh Torah (in Ainsworth’s rendering, “Maimony in Misn.”), Hilkhot Berakhot (“Treat. of Blessings”) 10:8, which prescribes the four conditions under which Birkat Ha-Gomel, the blessing after being spared from mortal danger (itself derived from Psalm 107), is to be publicly recited.
Citing additional verses from the psalm, Bradford compared the Pilgrims’ arrival in America to the Jews’ crossing of the Sinai Desert, corresponding to “wayfaring men, when they are come to the inhabited land”-one of the four conditions requiring “confession…”
[T]he very first prayer the Pilgrims recited immediately upon their arrival in the New World had its origins in a distinctly Jewish practice. Accordingly, he considers this prayer service to be the original “Thanksgiving” – a service which predated, by a full year, the three days of feasting that served as the basis for the current American holiday…”
In many other ways, Thanksgiving has strong Jewish roots as well.
As noted above, the Puritans who fled England in 1620 on the Mayflower strongly identified with the Hebrew Bible – and the Jews of ancient Israel. They studied the Bible in the original Hebrew – there was even a proposal at one time to make Hebrew the official language of the colonies (partly because they hated everything English). Wouldn’t that have been cool!
The Puritans believed their own lives were a literal reenactment of the stories of the Bible, an oppressed people leaving for the freedom of a promised land.
The Jewish concept of the covenant was at the heart of Puritan religious communities – Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop said: “…we shall find the God of Israel is among us, but if we deal falsely with our God…we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going,”-- language that echoes the Torah, the Hebrew Bible.
The original Thanksgiving may have been based on Judaism’s fall harvest festival of Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles. The holiday is described in the Bible in the book of Deuteronomy (16:13-15):
After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for the LORD your God seven days, in the place that the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.
…Prayers of thanksgiving are some of the most important and prominent prayers in the Jewish tradition.
Every day, very first thing in the morning, before even getting out of bed, Jews traditionally start their day with a prayer of thanksgiving:
Modeh/Modah ani l’fanehah meleh hai v’kayam, sh’hehezarti nishmati b’chemlah, rabah emunatechah-- I am grateful before You, the living and enduring Sovereign, who has compassionately returned my soul to me; great is your faithfulness.
I recommend singing this prayer to the tune of “You are My Sunshine,” which never fails to make me a little happier.
Psalm 100, another psalm of thanksgiving, is part of the traditional daily liturgy, recited every weekday:
A psalm of praise. Raise a shout for the LORD, all the earth; worship the LORD in gladness; come into His presence with shouts of joy. Acknowledge that the LORD is God; He made us and we are His, His people, the flock He tends. Enter His gates with praise, His courts with acclamation. Praise Him! Bless His name! For the LORD is good; His steadfast love is eternal; His faithfulness is for all generations.
In the Jewish tradition, we also say blessings of thanks both before and after eating.
The blessing after eating is considered a biblical commandment, as it says in Deuteronomy 8:10: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.”
That passage in the Torah continues with an enjoinder to remember to be grateful to God when we have eaten our fill, when we have fine houses, when we have herds and flocks and silver and gold – for it’s at such a time that our hearts may grow haughty.
And this is still very much true today – human nature seems to be to want to blame God when things go wrong – “Why me, God?” – but to take full credit ourselves when things are going well, “I worked hard and deserve this.”
No, you probably don’t deserve it – I’m pretty sure I don’t actually deserve all the blessings in my life – but God is gracious and generous with us, and we should be appropriately grateful…
Giving thanks is so important – so necessary for the soul – that we have a midrash, a rabbinic teaching that says in the time to come, in the days of the Messiah, the era when there is peace and plenty for all, all sacrifices will be annulled, except for the sacrifice of thanksgiving. All prayers will be annulled, except for the prayer of gratitude, as the prophet Jeremiah said regarding the messianic age, “The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the voice of those who say ‘Give thanks to the LORD of hosts.’” – those are the voices that will be heard.
I would like to close with a beautiful prayer from Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement:
In the days of the Puritan pilgrims,
When they arrived in the land of their haven,
And suffered from hunger and cold,
And sang and prayed
To the Rock of their Salvation,
You stood by them in their time of trouble
And aroused the compassion
Of the native Indians,
Who gave them food, fowl and corn
And many other delicacies.
You saved them from starving and suffering,
And You showed them the ways of peace
With the inhabitants of the land.
Feeling gratitude, they established therefore
A day of Thanksgiving every year
For future generations to remember,
And they feed the unfortunate
With feasts of Thanksgiving.
Therefore do we also thank You
For all the goodness in our lives.
God of kindness, Lord of peace,
We thank You.