What's Jewish about Thanksgiving? Lots!
One day in late November a few years ago I ran into a congregant in the hallway of the temple. She wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. Then she said: “Oh wait a minute. I didn’t mean to offend you. Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?” I replied: “Of course! Jews celebrate Thanksgiving.” She laughed, a little embarrassed, and I wished her a Happy Thanksgiving too.
There are strong historical connections between Judaism and Thanksgiving. Most of the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving were Puritans, a branch of the Protestant faith. The Puritans strongly identified with the historical traditions and customs of the Israelites in the Bible.
In their quest for religious freedom, the Puritans viewed their journey to America as exactly analogous to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. England was Egypt, the king was Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea, and the Puritans were the Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land. In fact, most of the Puritans had Hebrew names and there was even a proposal to make Hebrew the language of the colonies!
Many people believe that the Pilgrims modeled Thanksgiving after the holiday of Sukkot, as they are both harvest festivals that take place in the fall. In Jewish tradition, Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. We dwell in booths to remember how our ancestors lived in sukkot for 40 years in the desert. However, the Torah also refers to Sukkot as chag ha’asif, the Festival of the Ingathering. At this time of year in Israel, the harvest was ending and the final fruits and crops were gathered and stored. Sukkot is also known as z’man simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing, as our ancestors gave thanks for the conclusion of the harvest and the bounty of the land.
As close readers of the Bible, the Puritans would have known about Sukkot which may have inspired them to celebrate Thanksgiving. As Rabbi Elias Lieberman, leader of the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in Massachusetts, put it in this news article:
While we cannot be certain about what motivated those Pilgrim settlers to initiate a feast of thanksgiving, it is likely that they consciously drew on a model well-known to them from the Bible they cherished. Seeing themselves as new Israelites in a new “promised land,” the Pilgrims surely found inspiration in the Bible, in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which God commands the ancient Israelites to observe the Feast of Booths—in Hebrew, Sukkot, “To rejoice before Adonai your God” at the time of the fall harvest.
Of course the main theme of the holiday of Thanksgiving comes from the name itself, reminding us of the importance of giving thanks. Saying “thank you” is a primary Jewish value. When a Jew sits down to eat, he or she says: “Blessed are you God, for bringing bread from the earth.” To say a blessing over bread affirms that God played a role in creating the universe where the sun rises each day and the rain falls and the growth of food is possible.
The rabbis taught that we are to say 100 blessings a day. This teaching reminds us that no matter how difficult life can be, we all have many blessings such as simply being alive, our health, our loved ones, and friends.
Traditionally we reach the 100 blessings by praying the three daily services plus reciting the blessings before and after we eat. However the rabbis also suggested a few special blessing for us to acknowledge the wonders of everyday.
Upon seeing lightning, one may say: “Blessed are you God, who made the world.” When you see the ocean, you can say: “Blessed are you God, who made the great sea.” And upon seeing fruit trees in bloom, one may say: “Blessed are you God, who leaves nothing lacking in the world, who created good creatures and beautiful trees, for the benefit of all people.”
What about the other 97 blessings? I might suggest that we offer the following words: “Baruch atah Adonai, Blessed are you God,” and then insert whatever we have to be thankful for – our family, our friends, our food, our homes, our country, our Jewish State, our synagogue, and any of the myriad of blessings in our lives.
As Jews we can celebrate Thanksgiving with pride. From the historical connections of the Puritans to Sukkot and the Torah, to the primary importance in Judaism of saying thank you to God for all our blessings, Thanksgiving is a holiday steeped in Jewish values.
On this Thanksgiving, when we are gathered around the table, I might suggest that we offer a special blessing: “Baruch atah Adonai, Blessed are you God, who has given us the bounty of food and the blessing of family.”
Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer serves Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, NJ. Together with the Rev. Michael Attas, he is the author of Fly Fishing The Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice.