The Tish and the Thanksgiving Table

By Allan Nadler
Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In a scene in Avalon, Barry Levinson’s cinematic memoir of growing up in Baltimore with his Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents, Uncle Gabriel Krichinsky, brilliantly played by Lou Jacobi, arrives—late, as usual—for the extended Krichinsky family’s annual Thanksgiving dinner and sees that the meal has begun without him.  He reacts to this violation of the established order with a hysterical tantrum, uttering what have been called the “best Thanksgiving movie lines, ever”: “You cut da toikey widdout me?  Vot?  You couldn’t vait?  Your own flesh and blood—you cut da toikey!”

Still incensed, Uncle Gabriel storms out of the house and, from the sidewalk, delivers his final, righteous halakhic ruling: “You gotta vait until every relative is der, before da toikey is cut!  I’ve said enough!”  And off he drives, his indignation testifying to the way Thanksgiving, uniquely among non-Jewish festivals, has been adopted, with its food and rituals cherished, by American Jews.  While parochial debates still linger about the propriety of Jews celebrating this secular feast, they are limited to the ultra-Orthodox fringe.

It’s different in Canada, where Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday only in 1957.  In my native Montreal, few Jews celebrated it; our French Quebecois neighbors saw it as an Anglophone artifice of recent vintage, hardly appropriate for the proud, pure laine descendants of Quebec's revered founding fathers.  I fondly recall the utter novelty, when I was a graduate student in Boston, of my very first Thanksgiving dinner—not least because it took place in the Orthodox home of a new American friend who had just completed his rabbinical studies under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.  It was that greatest of Modern Orthodox sages who endorsed the celebration of Thanksgiving with a festive meal.  In subsequent years, in New York, I shared many a Thanksgiving dinner with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s own son, the talmudic scholar Haym Soloveitchik. 

For many American Jews, observance of Thanksgiving is more than merely permissible; it has evolved into something quasi-sacred.  There have been numerous discussions of the inherent “Jewishness” of the holiday.  Some are serious, including analysis of a Puritan document that cites rabbinic laws mandating expressions of gratitude.  Others are silly, like the etymological claim that the modern Hebrew term for turkey, basar hodu, is rooted in the Hebrew verb for giving thanks, l’hodot (as in the Hallel prayer, hodu la-shem ki tov).   

Such speculation aside, it is a matter of historical record that when President Washington and the U.S. Congress first proclaimed November 26, 1789 as a national day of thanksgiving, America’s Jews followed their religious leaders in embracing, celebrating, and even sanctifying it.  America’s first native-born Jewish preacher, Hazan Gershom Seixas-Mendes Mendes Seixas of Manhattan’s Spanish and Portuguese Congregation Shearith Israel, actually fashioned a special Shaharit service for America’s first day of thanksgiving, beginning with five special psalms and concluding with Adon Olam.  The service included Mendes Seixas’ passionately patriotic sermon praising God for delivering “our nation” from British rule; the sermon made such an impression that it was published within weeks of its delivery.

Just shy of a century later, after President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving an annual national holiday in 1863, the most prominent Reform rabbi of the American North, David Einhorn, delivered a powerful Thanksgiving Day sermon in Philadelphia’s largest temple, Knesseth Israel, analogizing the enslavement of America’s blacks to the historic suffering of the Jews since their enslavement in Egypt.  Einhorn began his homily with American patriotism, describing the day as “appointed by the President of the United States . . . to be observed by the loyal portion of the land.”  But he concluded on a distinctively Jewish note: “Bless Israel, imbue it with a spirit of devotion and thankfulness towards this land, the first that broke the chains its children wore for centuries.”

Perhaps the fact that Thanksgiving’s central observance is a festive and abundant meal with increasingly ritualized elements—akin to the Passover seder’s shulhan arukh, a table set according to sacred custom—has also attracted American Jews to the holiday.  In 2010 the American Jewish Committee published America’s Table: A Thanksgiving Reader, an interfaith booklet that clearly resembles, in form if not content, the Passover Haggadah. 

But what of those Hasidim who do not partake of the Thanksgiving table? 

These Jews have their own table, though very few American Jews have ever heard of, let alone attended, it: the rebbe’s Sabbath tish (Yiddish for table), the most sacralized feast in the history of Judaism, with bizarre, mystically infused customs and ritually sanctified foods.  The tish, conducted on Friday evenings and before dusk on Saturday, during the seudah sh’lishit or third meal, is among the most central and enduring religious rituals in Hasidic life.  

Hasidic lore attributes the origin of the tish to Hasidism’s putative founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the “Besht.”  According to the hagiographical collection Shivhei haBesht (Praises of the Besht), the Baal Shem Tov would gather with his small circle of disciples for Sabbath and festival meals.  Sources that depict the activities of the Hasidim in the generation following the death of the Besht in 1760 provide more elaborate evidence of such sacred gatherings.  An embryonic form of today’s Hasidic tish certainly took place in the very first organized Hasidic “court”—that of Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, revered as the “Great Maggid” (preacher)—just a decade before the first American Thanksgiving.  The Great Maggid’s court serves to this day as a socio-religious model for most Hasidic communities (Chabad is an exception). 

However, what began as a genuinely communal meal, a repast the Hasidim shared fully with their master, over time became elevated (or degenerated, depending on one’s perspective) into a highly structured sacrament in which the Rebbe increasingly took the role of priest rather than dinner host.  Only he consumed a full meal; after he did so, he ritualistically distributed minute portions of leftovers, shirayim, to his followers.  Today, the high point of the Hasid's pilgrimage to his Rebbe's court is the opportunity to sit at the Rebbe’s table, hear his recitation of the kiddush, intently observe his every holiness-infused movement, listen to his teachings and, most important, participate in the sacrament of the Rebbe-sanctified shirayim.

The change occurred for complex reasons, mainly the decline of Hasidism’s early populist spirit and the growing elitism of its leadership.  Most important was a growing consensus that the doctrine of avodah b’gashmiyut—serving God by sanctifying material pleasures—was fraught with danger and, thus, required, for its safe exercise, the kind of mystical prowess possessed only by the tsadikim, the holy Hasidic leaders.  According to common Hasidic belief rooted in earlier kabbalistic doctrine, only the Rebbe has the power to sanctify the food he eats, by engaging in theurgic activity that separates the inherent and essential sparks of holiness in all created materials, food among them, from their corporeal matter.  And only after he has sanctified the food can he share it in a diffused manner with his followers by, quite literally, throwing them some crumbs, namely the shirayim.

Similarly, although the general idea of elevating food to its divine source through sacred eating was well developed by the time of the 16th-century schools of Cordoveran and Lurianic Kabbalah, Hasidism popularized this kabbalistic concept and gave it concrete expression in the rituals of the tish, that communalized a previously esoteric and socially restricted mystical practice.  One aspect of this popularization was to apply the earlier theories very concretely to specific items on the rebbe's Sabbath and festival menu.  Using a variety of startling hermeneutic devices, Hasidic exegetes assigned particular mystical significations to such distinctly east European Jewish foods as kugel, lokshen, gefilte fish, farfel, and kishke.    

To this day, each Hasidic sect maintains distinct, if minute, variations, depending on its place of origin in eastern Europe, regarding the items on the ornate, super-sized silver platter placed before the Rebbe, always in a spirit of fearful reverence.  Certain delicacies, however, are common to all, most notably kugel and fish.  The kugel, the single culinary item most distinctive to all Jews of Eastern Europe, is associated in Hasidic lore with the kabbalistic orb of yesod, the source of human procreation.  Moreover, according to Hasidic doctrine, the kugel’s traditionally round shape (in one etymology the word is derived from the Hebrew ke’igul, “as a circle”) symbolizes the divine presence pervading the world.

As for the fish, an old kabbalistic tradition deems the fish the holiest of God’s creatures.  Its perpetually open eyes are said to symbolize God’s unceasing providence.  Thus, Hasidic literature records many strange customs surrounding the eyeballs of the massive fish presented to the Rebbe at the tish.  Some rebbes consumed the eyeballs first; others placed them in the pockets of their kapotehs, or caftans.  It is not the most appetizing image, but it well captures the surreal, mystical atmosphere permeating this uniquely Hasidic religious observance.

Uncle Gabriel ruled, "you gotta vait."  And the Hasidim do wait patiently, sometimes for hours, for their rebbes’ arrival at the tish.  But once the proceedings are under way, any semblance of table etiquette is quickly thrown to the winds.  I was 16 the first time I attended a Hasidic tish, held during a visit to Montreal by the Viznitser Rebbe of Bnei Brak.  The Rebbe ate a few bites of the massive carp presented to him, then pushed the silver platter to his shames—attendant—for the distribution of shirayim.  The Hasidim surged, pushing and shoving their way towards the shames for their chance at the carp.  In the melee, with the shames upended, the platter was overturned, and the carp landed on the shul’s far-from-pristine floor.  But the hundreds of Hasidim kept grabbing for their morsels of sanctified fish like pigeons fighting for crumbs on a New York sidewalk.

It was not exactly an American Thanksgiving.  But, then, the Hasidim were celebrating not only America but the creation of the very cosmos—in the words of the Sabbath kiddush, zekher l’maaseh b’reishit.  No wonder their frenzied determination.

Allan Nadler is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Jewish Studies at Drew University, and has recently been appointed rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Montreal, Quebec. 

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