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Is Thanksgiving a Jewish Holiday?

11/21/2018 06:18:42 PM


In their search for religious freedom, the Puritans viewed their journey to America as a mirror image of 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 scholars believe the first Thanksgiving was modeled after the Sukkot holiday, as the Puritans were strongly connected to these “Old Testament” connections.

An American holiday of Thanksgiving has always resonated with Jews.  Many Jewish immigrants have been profoundly grateful to America for the freedom to practice their religion.  Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York – and the first synagogue established in America in 1654 – wanted to connect the experience of being Jewish and American.  When President George Washington proclaimed November 26, 1789 a national day of thanksgiving and prayer to mark the adoption of the U.S. Constitution – the clergy called a special prayer service for that day, and selected various sections from Hallel, a prayer recited on the Jewish festivals of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot.  Thanksgiving became an annual national holiday in 1863 – proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War, and was enthusiastically adopted by Jewish Americans, who intuitively understood the value of this holiday. After all, a big family feast with symbolic foods, discussions of what we are thankful for – very reminiscent of a Passover Seder!

This Thanksgiving comes in the midst of many recent disturbing and challenging national and world events.  From the fires in Northern California to the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, our sense of safety has been shattered.  Gathering to enjoy a plentiful feast with our family and friends seems almost sacrilegious in the face of the suffering of others.

And yet, what is the lesson our ancestors learned and taught every time the Jews were persecuted and displaced?  To continue to celebrate Shabbat and holidays, to gather and share what they had, to provide wine and challah and candles for the families who had none – because there is always something for which we can say “Baruch Ata Adonai”.  We even have stories of concentration camp inmates finding a way to celebrate holidays, in order to retain their humanity. The rabbis taught that we should 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.  Even if we are challenged by ill health, tragedy or misfortune, we can be grateful for what we have in this moment.

This year, I invite you to connect the quintessential American and Jewish qualities of this holiday! Whether you do this formally at the holiday table or while you are engaged in cooking or other activities, you can just stop and say “Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam – and fill in the blank in English with what you are grateful for!  I’ll start.  Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam – for my life today, and the opportunity to use the gifts You have given me to bring a smile to someone’s face, to let someone know how much they mean to me, and to make the world just a slightly better place!”

Sun, July 21 2019 18 Tammuz 5779