Is Thanksgiving a Jewish Holiday?

Is Thanksgiving a Jewish holiday? Well it is an American holiday but it certainly resonates with Jews and Judaism.

Judaism has much to say about Thanksgiving. Back when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, one of his officials was a Jew. Luis de Torres, a Spanish Jew who spoke several languages, served as the interpreter on Columbus’ voyage that rediscovered the New World. When they first arrived at an island, which Columbus mistakenly thought was their destination in Asia, Torres was the first to embark because he was the most likely capable to communicate with the locals. It was then that they realized they were not where they thought they were.

Legend has it that Torres is responsible for giving the turkey its name. These birds were foreign to the Europeans in Columbus’ command. Torres thought it looked like a peacock and gave it the Hebrew name for peacock, “tu-kee.” Apparently it stuck.

We have all heard various different legends about how Thanksgiving came to be. As young children many of us probably dressed up as pilgrims for a school play . . .dressed in black and white with buckled hats and flowing dresses. We have all heard of Governor William Bradford, who, after the devastating winter of 1621 had passed and those pioneering New Worlders proved they could harvest food, declared a day of thanksgiving to be shared with the Native American Indians and the Pilgrims. Many know that Abraham Lincoln was the first president to declare Thanksgiving a national day of thanksgiving and that each president since has made a similar proclamation each year.

But could there be a Jewish connection to Thanksgiving too?

Think about the Festival of Sukkot. The early pilgrims knew their bible and when it came time to thank God for a bountiful harvest, it is possible they looked no further than scripture for a model. One great symbol of Sukkot is that we build temporary structures in our back yard and then we welcome friends and neighbors into them for a meal. We are thankful for all our blessings…and we eat a meal together. Not so different from our modern Turkey Day. Although, speaking as a Minnesotan, I am additionally grateful that we will eat inside on Thursday.

Regardless of whether Sukkot was used to frame Thanksgiving, as many have suggested, Sukkot does give us ways to be thankful that can easily translate into American Thanksgiving.

A core value of Sukkot is that we humans need to recognize that we have very little control of the things that truly matter in the world. We cannot make it rain so that crops will grow. We cannot control natural phenomena like hurricanes and tornados that often put our lives in peril. And while we can live healthy lives, we often have little control over illness and disease. But there is so much we can control . . . and on Thanksgiving . . .these should be our focus.

Our tradition often emphasizes food. Every holiday has its only flavor . . .literally. So much of what we do is imbued with celebration around a table. Our dinner tables have even been referred to in tradition as a “small sanctuary.” Food should be one of our great symbols of joy, but it should also serve as a reminder of all the need that exists in the world as well.

In the Torah we encounter the story of our patriarch Jacob and his slightly older twin brother Esau. In their story, Esau returns from the hunting fields famished and Jacob seizes upon this opportunity to trade the stew he had been cooking to Esau in exchange for Esau’s birthright. And Esau agreed! The rabbis of the Midrash and Talmud didn’t think Esau was a very good person. One reason for this might have been that he let his hunger turn him inward. He acted for himself only. Who are we if we act only for ourselves?

This week we will be surrounded by food; as we feel the pangs of hunger, I hope it reminds each of us of those who cannot simply fill their plate to make those pains go away.

Judaism requires us to say thank you to God even when things are not going that well. Thankfulness is built into the daily system of prayer. It forces us to think about all that is good in our lives. And there is so much to be thankful for; life, family, friends, a vibrant state of Israel, the Vikings . . .the list is endless.

But at this Thanksgiving, may we also remember those people who are suffering, who don’t have food, shelter and health coverage. And may we be thankful for the opportunity to go out and help them once we have been satisfied at our tables and given voice to our thanks for our abundance.