In modern times, Jews are often wary of engaging in non-Jewish practices, even non-religious ones, since participation could lead to assimilation or a perversion of our values. In the case of the American holiday of Thanksgiving, not only should we, as Jews, not be hesitant to participate—we should embrace the spirit of this day and lead!
It took nearly 240 years for Thanksgiving to become an annual observance. Thanksgiving was first celebrated in 1621, a century and a half before the United States of America was founded, by early pilgrims who wanted to express thanks for their harvest. During the American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress set December 18, 1777 as the first day of Thanksgiving (although not an annual observance). After the Constitution was ratified, President George Washington, at the request of Congress, issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation for October 3, 1789 (again a one-day observance). Finally, in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln made this a reality. While the 1777 Proclamation uses overt Christian language, neither Washington’s nor Lincoln’s proclamations carry a specifically Christian message, so Thanksgiving could be celebrated by Americans of all faiths.
For many Americans today, Thanksgiving is just a day for turkey, football, and beer. But for many others the day represents much more: reconnecting with family, expressing thanks for those people and values we cherish most, and engaging in service for those in need. The continuing American commitment to family is evidenced by the estimate that this year, 43.6 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles to be with their families.
Thanksgiving offers an extra opportunity to cultivate the Jewish virtue of gratitude (hakarat hatov). In the Jewish blessing after meals, the words “v’achalta v’savata uveirachta” (you shall eat, be satisfied, and bless) are recited, teaching that one not only expresses gratitude for eating, but also for the feeling of being full and satisfied. Before we run to fulfill our next desire, we should pause to be full of gratitude and contentment (histapkut).
We learn from Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? He who appreciates (or is happy with) his portion” (4:1). To cultivate this, the rabbis teach that we should make 100 blessings a day (Menachot 42b). These are moments when we step back and reflect upon our good fortune and express gratitude for the blessings we have received.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great 20th-century American Jewish legal authority, said that America is a “medina shel chesed” (a country of kindness), and that we are obligated to express our thanks to this great nation for giving us a free and safe home. As American Jews, we have much to be thankful for. My synagogue will be saying a portion of Hallel at our morning prayer service because Thanksgiving is a time for us as Americans and as Jews to give thanks. When gratitude is authentic, it is turned from an emotion into song, and from song into giving outwards. This year, let’s remember to show our thanks and take this opportunity to give!
Chag Sameach! Wishing all a joyous holiday!
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century". Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"