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What's Jewish About Thanksgiving?

Renee Eder on Tuesday, November 20, 2018


Did you know that Thanksgiving is the American holiday most celebrated by Jewish people in the U.S.? And, I must say, I am glad that it is! Every year, my family gathers for turkey and all the fixings. My youngest is ten, but I kept a few pairs of maternity pants just for this occasion!

You may not realize this, but there are strong historical connections between Judaism and Thanksgiving. First of all, most of the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving were Puritans. Although Puritan is a branch of the Protestant faith, the Puritans strongly identified with the historical traditions and customs of the Israelites in the Bible. In fact, in their quest for religious freedom, the Puritans often compared their journey to America to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. As analogies went, England was Egypt, the king was Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea, and the Puritans were the Israelites, entering into a new covenant with G-d in a new Promised Land. In fact, most of the Puritans had Hebrew names and there was even a proposal to make Hebrew the language of the colonies!

Many people believe that the Pilgrims modeled Thanksgiving after the holiday of Sukkot, as they are both harvest festivals that take place in the fall. In Jewish tradition, Sukkot is both historical and agricultural. We dwell in booths to remember how our ancestors lived in sukkot for 40 years in the desert. Sukkot is also known as a time of our rejoicing, as our ancestors gave thanks for the conclusion of the harvest and the bounty of the land. Both Sukkot and Thanksgiving encourage us to stop and acknowledge our blessings. Whether we accomplish that over a slice of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie or by eating a meal with family and friends beneath the leafy branches of a sukkah roof, we understand and embrace what it was that inspired our Pilgrim and our Israelite ancestors during both of these harvest holidays.

As Americans and as Jews, we can celebrate Thanksgiving with pride. From the historical connections of the Puritans to Sukkot, to the primary importance in Judaism of saying thank you to G-d for all of our blessings, Thanksgiving is a holiday steeped in Jewish values. This Thanksgiving, we at the J hope that you are blessed with the bounty of food and the blessing of family and friends.

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