For those of us Jews with children in school sports, a calendar dictates — or at least influences or causes debates in our homes — as to whether or not our child plays in a game on Shabbat morning.
The Christian calendar and secular rituals influence and dictate Jewish behavior. (A movie and Chinese buffet dinner on December 25 sound familiar?) Yes, calendar events dictate what we eat on certain days and when we make a habit to gather as one to give thanks. How many of us will have turkey at our dining table this Thursday?
“At this wonderful time of year, family and friends, gather together around one table for one reason, to give thanks, to offer thanks,” says Rabbi Adam J. Titcher, an assistant rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation, in a D’var Torah video message that ties together Thanksgiving and Parashat Vayetzei.
“[Thanksgiving] is not just an opportunity to spend time with loved ones, but we get to hear conversations. Hear laughter, hear stories, hear reasons why each of us are thankful. We get to feel with our hearts, the moments that we get to share, together.” — Rabbi Adam J. Titcher
The fourth Thursday of every November is a calendar event that dictates our lives as Americans and as American Jews.
The penetration of Christian and secular culture into Jewish life was a topic Elisheva Carlebach, the Salo Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture, and Society at Columbia University, explored in an illustrated lecture that took place Sunday, November 18 at Adath Jeshurun Congregation and presented by the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota.
The lecture’s timing was quite apropos as we approach Thanksgiving. In addition to most of us having Thanksgiving Day off from work, many non-retail businesses also give the Friday after — “Black Friday” — as a day off from work, creating a four-day holiday that makes it an ideal time to shop and travel.
As with the commercialization of many holidays, we can quickly lose sight of the true meaning of certain holidays.
“The purpose of Thanksgiving is to come together …and then offer thanks. Thanks to G-d, thanks to our loved ones, thanks from inside,” says Rabbi Titcher.
Still, the deeper meaning of a holiday doesn’t change the pop culture influences. Thanksgiving weekend is one of the busiest travel seasons of the year, it is practically matched in popularity to being one of the biggest shopping weekends to kickoff the Christmas season.
The History of Thanksgiving
President George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1789 as Thursday, November 26. Thanksgiving Day became an annual holiday in the United States in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared “the last Thursday” in November as a day of “thanksgiving and praise.”
However, in 1939 when Thanksgiving fell on Thursday, November 30, retailers protested that this shortened Christmas shopping season would hurt their sales. As a result, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would be on Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month. A pop culture influence that practically tore the U.S. in two, as some states followed the fourth Thursday for Thanksgiving and some followed the third Thursday. The confusion and discord was laid to rest on December 26, 1941, when Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November.
Elisheva Carlebach, in her lecture, “Illustrated Jewish Books of Time,” and in her book “Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe” shows that the calendar is a complex and living system that influences popular culture, economic activity, and the Jewish sense of past and future.
Thanksgiving is one holiday filled with family festivities and rituals (parade-watching, football games, etc.) — that American Jews share with our neighbors of other faiths to give thanks.
“Let us each all give thanks to G-D and thanks to each other for bringing us together for this time,” says Rabbi Titcher.