Judaism and the Music of Thanksgiving

November 20, 2014Cantor Deborrah Cannizzaro

Ah, fall! In many parts of the country, the temperature has dropped, the leaves have turned shades of red, orange and yellow and are falling off the trees. It's time for Thanksgiving in the U.S.

For many Americans, the holiday evokes powerful sensory images: the smell of roasting turkey over the course of the afternoon; the taste of savory pumpkin pie; the sounds of laughter and excitement; the feelings of love and happiness as family members gather together from near and far to be together.

Interestingly, the Pilgrims, who originated the idea of a Thanksgiving holiday, may have borrowed the idea from the Festival of Sukkot. While some historians tend to view this more as an American midrash (rabbinic literature which fills in stories where biblical narratives leave gaps) than fact, others argue that the similarity between the two festivals cannot be overlooked. The Pilgrims were a deeply religious people and it makes sense that they would have looked to the Bible for an appropriate way to express their thanks for their survival and for the harvest. The first Thanksgiving was a harvest festival that was celebrated sometime between September 21 and November 9. Sukkot, also a Fall harvest festival, usually occurs in October and is biblically mandated (Leviticus 23:33 et seq.).

Most holidays, especially Jewish ones, have music associated with them. This is not the case with Thanksgiving. While both Canada and the United States have holidays of Thanksgiving, it seems that composers have not been inspired to write music in celebration of this holiday. This is understandable since it is a secular holiday and has no religious ritual or service associated with it.

While Jewish composers have not been inclined to write music in honor of the holiday of Thanksgiving, they certainly have been forthcoming with compositions about thankfulness. After all, giving thanks is certainly a very Jewish thing to do. According to our tradition, Jews are to give thanks no fewer than 100 times each day. Prayers of thanksgiving are a part of every morning service, and our Sh'losh Regalim (three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot) have an entire section that is devoted to the act of giving thanks to God - Hallel.

The very first Jewish composer was that "Sweet Voice of Israel," King David. We have an entire series of 150 Psalms (73 of which are attributed to David), many of which are songs of thanksgiving. Psalm 100, "Mizmor l'Todah," has become a part of our weekday shacharit (morning prayer) service, and expresses praises for God and thanks for God's love. Many composers have been taken with this song of thanksgiving and have set its words to music.

In the setting of this psalm by Salamone Rossi (c. 1570 - 1630), one hears the polyphonic beauty of the Baroque style of Rossi's time blended with the Hebrew poetry. Rossi, who was singer, violinist and composer at the court of Mantua from 1587 until 1628, was the first composer to blend the music and style of this time with songs of the synagogue. This particular setting of "Mizmor l'Todah" was published in a collection of Jewish liturgical music (Ha-shirim asher li-Shlomo, The Songs of Solomon) in 1623.

For a completely different sound of thanks, we turn to composer Joshua Jacobson who arranged a setting of Psalm 100 titled "Showt [sic] to the Lord at the Earth," based on the Ainsworth Psalter. The sound of the Gregorian chant, medieval instruments and voices are intriguing. Again, Zamir Chorale of Boston is performing.

More recently, contemporary folk and rock composers have taken the words of the psalm and set them to music designed to appeal to youth. Dan Nichols ("Ivdu et HaShem" from his album Be Strong), Shefa Gold ("Ivdu - Serving Through Joy," from her album Enchant) and Robbie Solomon ("Mizmor l'Todah" from Safam's album In Spite of it All) are only a few of the composers who have adapted this Psalm of Thanksgiving to reach contemporary audiences.

Another Psalm of Thanksgiving is Psalm 118, one of the Psalms that make up the Hallel. This Psalm has been a particular favorite for composers for many years. Psalm 118, which begins "Hodu l'Adonai ki tov" ("Praise Adonai for God is good"), a psalm which covers all the bases of thanksgiving. It praises God for God's steadfast love, for God's Name, for God's righteousness, for opening the gates of righteousness, for delivering us, etc. No wonder that composers have been drawn to it.

Moshe Kraus wrote a spirited Chassidic version of "Hodu L'Adonai Ki Tov." The jubilation of the melody, especially as sung by Cantor Abraham Mizrahi in 1978, is a fitting tribute to God and the thanksgiving that is due. 

For a completely different interpretation of thanksgiving, Hazzan Dr. Ramón Tasat, an eminent cantor at Shirat HaNefesh in Maryland, gives us a number of unique and rarely-heard Italian melodies obtained through oral tradition in Livorno, Rome, and Florence. Collected for the most part by musicologist Leo Levi, these songs have been transcribed and adapted for use by vocal soloists and instruments. 

I certainly could not end this discussion of Thanksgiving and music without mention of the one Jewish Thanksgiving song I was able to find: Debbie Friedman's "The Thanksgiving Song." Debbie, certainly one of the most popular and prolific modern Jewish composers, wrote a song celebrating this festive day, and added her own "Jewish" touches to the feast:

"Happy Thanksgiving, hooray hooray hooray, aren't you glad you're not a turkey on this Thanksgiving Day?"

Her refrain is certainly one that makes it a popular choice for family gatherings.

In the end, to find the true music of Thanksgiving one really only needs to look inside. From the beating of our hearts as we express our love for others to the helping hand we extend to those in need, the music of Thanksgiving lives inside each of us.

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