THE JEWISH ROOTS OF THANKSGIVING
Want to know how? Read on.
On Thursday, we will pause and take a moment to say thanks. One of the perennial questions asked is: Is Thanksgiving Jewish? We have a great answer, courtesy of Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University:”
Fleeing from persecution in England, the Pilgrim passengers on the Mayflower brought along their principal source of religious inspiration and comfort: the Bible. One particular edition of the Bible (published in 1618) is known to have been in the possession of none other than William Bradford, who would later serve as governor of Plymouth Colony. This edition was supplemented by the Annotations of a Puritan scholar named Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622).
Shortly after their landfall in November 1620, Bradford led the new arrivals in thanking God for the safe journey that brought them to America by reciting verses from Psalm 107. Curiously, Ainsworth’s Annotations to verse 32 of that psalm (“And let them exalt him in the church of the people, and praise him in the sitting of the elders”) contains the following remarks:
And from this Psalme, and this verse of it, the Hebrues have this Canon; Foure must confess (unto God) The sick, when he is healed; the prisoner when he is released out of bonds; they that goe down to sea, when they are come up (to land); and wayfaring men, when they are come to the inhabited land. And they must make confession before ten men, and two of them wise men, Psal. 107. 32. And the manner of confessing and blessing is thus; He standeth among them and blesseth the Lord, the King eternal, that bounteously rewardeth good things unto sinners, etc. Maimony in Misn. Treat. Of Blessings, chap. 10, sect. 8.
If any of this looks familiar, it is because Ainsworth essentially copied over an English version of Maimonides’ comprehensive legal code, the Mishneh Torah(in Ainsworth’s rendering, Maimony Misn.), Hilkhot Berakhot (Treat. of Blessings) 10:8, which prescribes the four conditions under which birkat ha-gomel, the blessing after being spared from mortal danger (itself derived from Psalm 107), is to be publicly recited. Citing additional verses from the psalm, Bradford compared the Pilgrims’ arrival in America to the Jews’ crossing of the Sinai Desert, corresponding to “wayfaring men, when they are come to the inhabited land”-one of the four conditions requiring “confession.”…
[T]he very first prayer the Pilgrims recited immediately upon their arrival in the New World had its origins in a distinctly Jewish practice. Accordingly, he considers this prayer service to be the original “Thanksgiving” – a service which predated, by a full year, the three days of feasting that served as the basis for the current American holiday.Even without turkey and cranberry sauce, this vestige of Jewish influence on the religious mores of the U.S. is worth our acknowledgment and contemplation – and, of course, our thanksgiving.“
Even without turkey and cranberry sauce, this vestige of Jewish influence on the religious mores of the U.S. is worth our acknowledgment and contemplation – and, of course, our thanksgiving.”