The barrage of Jewish holidays and holy days has come and gone, celebrated in high spirits and observed with thoughtful reflection, respectively. In November, it is Thanksgiving which dominates the calendar and our plans and expectations. How should Jews celebrate Thanksgiving?
Unlike the American holidays of Halloween and Valentine’s Day, not to mention Christmas, Thanksgiving has never been associated with Christianity, paganism, or any religion, for that matter. Thanksgiving’s origins as an American holiday simply reflected our ancestors thanking God – our God – for the food, shelter, opportunity and community which they found in the new world. Thanking God for our bounty and for standing by us in times of need is a major theme in Judaism.
We do this daily, from the moment we awaken in the morning and pray “modeh ani” (I give thanks to You), to the multitude of blessings and prayers in our daily services, it illustrates that gratitude and thankfulness are part of a full Jewish life.
Gathering together with family and friends is similarly a value which Judaism promotes, so no problem there. And coming together around a table of delicious food is also very Jewish. Perhaps your Thanksgiving menu even incorporates some traditional Jewish food, like chicken soup or maybe even a brisket. I used to joke that Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday because it embodies a wonderful family meal, like Passover, but without the pesky Hagadah reading before and after. But now I realize that while Thanksgiving can never compete with Passover, in its own way it can easily be imbued with Jewish values and sentiment, from stopping to thank God for all that we have, to gathering together with our loved ones, and saying ha-motzi over the bread we break together.
So while you are sitting around the Thanksgiving table in a few weeks take a moment to realize how rich our lives are, for bringing family together and for putting food our plates; Thanksgiving definitely can have Jewish meaning.
I wish you all a very happy and Jewish Thanksgiving.