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Thanksgiving: A Jewish Holiday After All

In 1789, in response to a resolution offered by Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, President George Washington issued a proclamation recommending that Thursday November 26th of that year "be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation."

Relevant Links
A Prayer for America  David De Sola Pool, Union of Sephardic Congregations. Scant months after the end of World War II, a Thanksgiving Day liturgy was compiled by the rabbi of New York’s Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. (1945, PDF)
An American Yom Tov  Dennis Prager, Forward. It says an immense amount about America that it long ago created a national holiday just for the purpose of giving thanks—one which American Jews should celebrate with particular enthusiasm.

In New York City, Congregation Shearith Israel convened a celebration on that day at which its minister, Gershom Mendes Seixas, embraced the occasion: "As we are made equal partakers of every benefit that results from this good government; for which we cannot sufficiently adore the God of our fathers who hath manifested his care over us in this particular instance; neither can we demonstrate our sense of His benign goodness, for His favourable interposition in behalf of the inhabitants of this land."

While the celebrations at that venerable Orthodox synagogue continue unabated to this day, other American Jewish appreciations of Thanksgiving have ranged from the skeptical to the outright antagonistic. In an essay entitled "Is Thanksgiving Kosher?" Atlanta's Rabbi Michael Broyde examines three rabbis' halakhic positions on the subject: that of Yitzhak Hutner, who ruled Thanksgiving a Gentile holiday and forbade any recognition of it; that of Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who regarded it as a secular holiday and permitted its celebration (particularly by eating turkey), and that of Moshe Feinstein, who permitted turkey but prohibited any other celebration because of reservations over the recognition of even secular holidays.

Newly presented historical information, however, may swing the annual autumnal pendulum back in favor of participation in what now appears to have begun as a holiday with both a patent Jewish theme and associated rituals. In his recent book, Making Haste From Babylon, Nick Bunker reveals an item of particular significance for both Jewish observers and critics of Thanksgiving.

Fleeing from persecution in England, the Pilgrim passengers on the Mayflower brought along their principal source of religious inspiration and comfort: the Bible. One particular edition of the Bible (published in 1618) is known to have been in the possession of none other than William Bradford, who would later serve as governor of Plymouth Colony.  This edition was supplemented by the Annotations of a Puritan scholar named Henry Ainsworth (1571–1622).

Shortly after their landfall in November 1620, Bradford led the new arrivals in thanking God for the safe journey that brought them to America by reciting verses from Psalm 107.  Curiously, Ainsworth's Annotations to verse 32 of that psalm ("And let them exalt him in the church of the people, and praise him in the sitting of the elders") contains the following remarks:


And from this Psalme, and this verse of it, the Hebrues have this Canon; Foure must confess (unto God) The sick, when he is healed; the prisoner when he is released out of bonds; they that goe down to sea, when they are come up (to land); and wayfaring men, when they are come to the inhabited land. And they must make confession before ten men, and two of them wise men, Psal. 107. 32. And the manner of confessing and blessing is thus; He standeth among them and blesseth the Lord, the King eternal, that bounteously rewardeth good things unto sinners, etc. Maimony in Misn. Treat. Of Blessings, chap. 10, sect. 8.

If any of this looks familiar, it is because Ainsworth essentially copied over an English version of Maimonides' comprehensive legal code, the Mishneh Torah (in Ainsworth's rendering, Maimony Misn.), Hilkhot Berakhot (Treat. of Blessings) 10:8, which prescribes the four conditions under which birkat ha-gomel, the blessing after being spared from mortal danger (itself derived from Psalm 107), is to be publicly recited. Citing additional verses from the psalm, Bradford compared the Pilgrims' arrival in America to the Jews' crossing of the Sinai Desert, corresponding to "wayfaring men, when they are come to the inhabited land"—one of the four conditions requiring "confession."

Bunker argues, consequently, that the very first prayer the Pilgrims recited immediately upon their arrival in the New World had its origins in a distinctly Jewish practice.  Accordingly, he considers this prayer service to be the original "Thanksgiving"—a service which predated, by a full year, the three days of feasting that served as the basis for the current American holiday.

Even without turkey and cranberry sauce, this vestige of Jewish influence on the religious mores of the U.S. is worth our acknowledgment and contemplation—and, of course, our thanksgiving.

Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).

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Ira Stoll on November 23, 2011 at 8:06 am (Reply)
Great article. Another piece of evidence for David Gelerntner's The Puritans Were Jews thesis.
Lawrence Kaplan on November 23, 2011 at 8:45 am (Reply)
I find this very iluminating and moving. Incidentally,my paternal grandfather and grandmother, together with their children (my father was about ten at the time), arrived in the United States on Thanksgiving Day, 1923.
LEONARD S ZOLL on November 23, 2011 at 9:48 am (Reply)
David Aharon Lindzon on November 23, 2011 at 10:51 am (Reply)
While Thanksgiving in the United States falls on the last Thursday in November, one could postpone its celebration until it could be more appropriately observed on Friday night, the Jewish Shabbat. Many of our American friends come to Canada to visit relatives at this time. If they can arrange to take Friday off, it's a four-day weekend. Why not serve kosher turkey instead of chicken on Friday night? The Jewish roots of Thanksgiving would be clear.

(In contrast, the Canadian Thanksgiving falls on the second Monday in October. It has been known to coincide with Yom Kippur or some part of Succos.)

Walter Greenspan on November 23, 2011 at 1:06 pm (Reply)
The American pilgrims, who originated the Thanksgiving holiday, were deeply religious people. When they were trying to find a way to express their thanks for their survival and for the harvest, they looked to the Bible for an appropriate way of celebrating and based their celebration in part on the seven-day Jewish Biblical Festival of Sukkot (Lev. 23:33-43).
NEIL on November 23, 2011 at 5:51 pm (Reply)
Americans and Canadians who have made aliyah celebrate the American and Canadian Thanksgivings in Eretz Yisrael.
Steve Frankel on November 24, 2011 at 5:43 am (Reply)
The Jewish influence on Christianity is not the issue; the Pligrams' attitude towards other religions, especially Judaism, is more relevant. To use the Plilgrims' experience to celebrate freedom of religion in America is a distortion of history.
Jeremy Janson on November 24, 2011 at 6:26 pm (Reply)
I've never totally understood the complete Jewish rejection of Christian ideas when they turn to the Old Testament, or its opposite in the Christian community. A lot is lost on both communities in terms of wisdom and true humanity. All people have more to learn from each other than they could possibly know, even from those who may be enemies by choice or necessity or may be estranged or excluded.
Geoff on November 26, 2011 at 10:07 am (Reply)
A fascinating confluence of ideas. I can trump L. Kaplan on paternal lineage for a Jew, though. My paternal (Puritan) ancestors arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, their first fixed date being that of the birth of John Dennis in Marblehead, 1638. Oy, Amerika!
Rabbi Jason Miller on November 28, 2011 at 8:22 am (Reply)
Here's my blog post on how Thanksgiving is part of the Jewish experience:

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