“Do Jewish people celebrate Thanksgiving?”
I have been asked this a multitude of times throughout my life, and it never ceases to confound me. After all, most Jews also identify as Americans; as such, we happily embrace and partake in Thanksgiving festivities, from showing appreciation for G-d’s bounty to savoring turkey, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.
I would suppose this inquiry arises from the fact that the original pilgrims at Plymouth Rock were of the Puritan faith, not Jews at all. However, as research has demonstrated, there are strong historical connections between Judaism and Thanksgiving. The Puritans strongly identified with the long-ago traditions and customs of the Israelites, as told in the Bible.
Many individuals believe that the Pilgrims modeled Thanksgiving after the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, both having the commonality of harvest festivals that take place in the fall. In Jewish tradition, Sukkothas both a historical and agricultural significance. The sukkot many of us build in our own backyards bring to mind how our ancestors dwelled in tabernacles for 40 years as they traversed the desert. At times, the Torah refers to Sukkotas chag ha’asif, the Festival of the Ingathering. In Israel, the harvest signifies a time when the final fruits and crops were gathered and stored. Sukkotis also known as z’man simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. During every fall, our ancestors would gather together and give thanks for the bounty of the year’s harvest.
As a people well versed in the Bible, the Puritans would have been aware of the celebration of Sukkot; and many historians believe this inspired them to celebrate what we have come to know as the holiday of Thanksgiving. Rabbi Elias Lieberman, leader of the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in Massachusetts, wrote the following in a news article:
“While we cannot be certain about what motivated those Pilgrim settlers to initiate a feast of thanksgiving, it is likely that they consciously drew on a model well-known to them from the Bible they cherished. Seeing themselves as new Israelites in a new “promised land,” the Pilgrims surely found inspiration in the Bible, in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which God commands the ancient Israelites to observe the Feast of Booths—in Hebrew, Sukkot, “To rejoice before Adonai your God” at the time of the fall harvest.”
It is interesting to note how closely aligned these seemingly diverse groups ofindividuals evolved, ending up rejoicing at the same time of year. Harvest definitely deserves a celebration; the goodness of the land, sown so adeptly in the spring, yields a crop sufficient enough to feed the masses through a cold and desolate winter.
This year, as you gather with friends and family, think about how many other faiths around the globe might be celebrating with you. Blessings abound, regardless of one’s background.