It's a popular question every fall, "Is Thanksgiving Jewish?" or its variation, "Is Thanksgiving a Jewish holiday?" And as it is with us Jews, you're sure to get a lot of answers and thumbs twisting. And you are sure to hear from someone: “Jews don’t do Thanksgiving, we thank Hashem every day.”
Of course that's true, we do thank Hashem every day, 100 times or more. But I love this wonderful response from an insightful Rabbi who said,” So what’s wrong with taking one day and doing it a little more?”
What’s in a Name?
It makes sense when you think about it. Thanking is the essence of our name, Yehudim. Leah named her fourth son Yehuda, from the root hoda’ah,“thank” because she recognized Hashem had given her more than her due. We are Yehudim, a nation called upon to acknowledge the blessings of life are all undeserved gifts, and to make known the Source of those gifts.
The truth is, the Jewish calendar is regularly punctuated with opportunities to offer our gratitude. Soon we’ll be singing Haneirot Hallalu while lighting the Chanukah menorah to thank and praise Hashem for the miracle of Jewish survival. We observe Purim with prayers of thanksgiving and festive banquets. We sing Dayenu and Hallel to celebrate our freedom at the Pesach Seder. On Shavuot we offer First Fruits in appreciation for our bounty. We read Chana’s grateful prayer on Rosh Hashanah. Every one of our holidays is a day for offering a little more thanks.
In fact, our Yom Kippur and Sukkot were the sources of inspiration for the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving. In a time of drought, their Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting and prayer, and when the rains came, they celebrated G-d giving them continued life with a meal of thanksgiving.
Today Thanksgiving is considered a secular holiday, a complete departure from religious origins. The main event is the turkey dinner prepared with much advance planning and fanfare. The traditional side dishes vary but the turkey is essential. In Hebrew, turkey is hodu, and it also means “thanksgiving.” I can’t help but wonder if Hashem is trying to tell us something.
I like Thanksgiving. I like to share a traditional meal with my extended circle of friends and family without worrying about someone using a cellphone or the bathroom light being switched off or explaining cooking contraptions, timers and other laws of Shabbos. And turning on the game afterward is completely acceptable. Thanksgiving levels the playing field and we can all pretty much enjoy the day together-as long it’s kosher.
Which means, I am usually the one in charge of what goes on in the kitchen. I look at it this way: It’s a whole day off to cook for Shabbos, and we’re just going to get a preview on Thursday. Because I always want my Shabbos table to offer the best dishes of the week, the recipes I prepare for Thanksgiving are just the foundation of beautiful Shabbos meals to come. And I’ll show you how to do this too, in The Kosher Channel’s Shabbat Thanksgiving pages.
The question remains, is Thanksgiving Jewish? I think it is an oxymoron. Yehuda is "hodu." Jews are thankful. The secular holiday is simply put, an extension of our natural state. For the Jew, every meal we eat is a holy experience (read To Dine with The King), there is no "extra" holiness attached to the Thanksgiving meal.
Like the wise rabbi said, there really is nothing wrong with taking another day to thank a little more. It is our essence, our purpose. We acknowledge and thank Hashem in every mitzvah and every chesed we do. We have the opportunity to bring holy light into every relationship we have, every choice we make, every action we take. And that is truly something to be thankful for.