As we prepare to stuff turkeys and make cranberry sauce, we can also reflect on the Jewish connections to Thanksgiving.
The Puritans were serious students of the Bible, the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament. They were deeply inspired by the texts and endeavored to live according to what they believed were God’s laws as outlined in scripture. They also strongly identified with the Israelites and their journey to a Promised Land as they, too, sought refuge from oppression. Like the Israelites, the Puritans escaped persecution, in their case from the leadership of the Church of England and the King.
Scholars differ on the details, but many believe that the Puritans used ancient harvest festivals, including the Jewish festival of Sukkot, as models for their first Thanksgiving celebration — not in building sukkot in their backyards, but in offering thanks for the harvest and for God’s blessings. They were indeed inspired by their revered texts which stressed the importance of offering thanks. In 1620 Puritan leader William Bradford, who served as governor of the Plymouth colony settlement for many years, led his people in thanking God for their arrival at their new home by reciting verses from Psalm 107, “Praise the Lord for He is good; His steadfast love is eternal!” Bradford compared the Pilgrims' journey to the Israelites' crossing of the Sinai Desert in the book of Exodus. Some have compared their expression of gratitude to the Birkat ha-Gomel (Blessing of Thanksgiving), which Jews recite when they have recovered from a serious illness or other life-threatening event.
The original Thanksgiving, held in 1621, featured three days of feasting, with 50 Puritans joined by 90 Native Americans. Early celebrations of Thanksgiving centered on a morning and evening religious service, with dinner in between, a bit like Rosh Hashanah.
From its very founding the United States sought to incorporate all Americans into the Thanksgiving festivities. George Washington invited “all religious societies and denominations” to join in the celebration. He proclaimed the first nation-wide Thanksgiving celebration in America, held on November 26, 1789, "as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God." That year Rabbi Gershom Sexias gave a Thanksgiving sermon at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. He had been among the clergy officiating at Washington’s inauguration.
In an interesting inversion, some American Jewish leaders compared the early Zionists to the Puritans. In his new biography of Menachem Begin, Daniel Gordis notes that “in 1902 the project of settling Jews in Palestine evoked for Richard Gotheil, president of the Federation of American Zionists, an image of ‘the Puritans who fled from persecution.’” Gordis also observes that “Justice Louis D. Brandeis spoke of Zionists as “the Jewish Pilgrim Fathers.”
As Jewish immigrants streamed into the United States in the 19th Century, their children picked up American customs at school and encouraged their parents to do the same. Once assured that Thanksgiving was not a specifically Christian holiday, Jews took up the holiday enthusiastically. For some, it was their first truly American experience. New York’s commissioners of immigration traditionally provided turkeys for those coming through Ellis Island.
Today we can maintain the nonsectarian nature of the holiday while adding a Jewish dimension. In addition to serving tsimmes with our turkey, we can look to the Psalms as a reminder that this is a day not just for football and food, but also to express gratitude to God for what we have. Recitation of certain psalms can add to the spiritual ambience. Psalm 100:”The Lord, He is God…Enter into his gates with thanksgiving…” Psalm 111: “I will give thanks unto the Lord with my whole heart…He has given food unto them that fear Him.” Also it’s always appropriate to begin a meal with HaMotzi – it doesn’t have to be Shabbat. And in the Jewish tradition of enhancing celebrations with tzedakah, we can donate to organizations that fight hunger.