Is Thanksgiving a Jewish holiday?

by | Nov 14, 2014 | Torah Thought

We all know the official story of Thanksgiving: the months of hunger prior to the first harvest, the helpful Native Americans, the Pilgrims grateful to have escaped starvation, the beginning of an American tradition.

In recent years, we have heard, with increasing frequency and emphasis, the claim that Thanksgiving is “Jewish,” in the sense that it is modeled on the Biblical Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles).

I thought that this was the case, too. After all, we know that the Puritans considered themselves to be “The New Israel.” In this analogy, just as the Israelites of old had crossed over from oppression, through the Wilderness, and into the Promised Land, so too, the Puritans themselves, strict Calvinists, had been oppressed in Anglican England, had crossed the watery wilderness of the Atlantic and were being guided by Divine Providence to set up a model religious commonwealth in New England. Religion was a major part of their mindset and the society they created. Why wouldn’t they model their harvest-season Thanksgiving on the seasonal festival of the Hebrew Scriptures?

But when I researched the history more closely, I came to the conclusion that the Puritans were not thinking primarily of the Biblical Sukkot, if indeed they were thinking of it at all. The reason is that the Biblical Sukkot is an annual festival, every year on the 15th day of the seventh (i.e. autumnal) month. But the Thanksgiving of the Colonial Era was not an annually recurring festival. It was proclaimed occasionally, but not steadily, for more than two centuries. Only Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, ordered that it be celebrated annually.

In the religious imagination of the Puritans, there were two types of religious holy days: recurring festivals, such as the Sabbath, and occasional ones. The former were a matter of religious tradition, but the latter could be proclaimed by political and social leaders. In hard times, they would proclaim a “day of fasting and humiliation” to be observed by all, in the hopes of winning Heaven’s pardon from whatever communal sin had ostensibly triggered the troubles besetting their society. For example, President John Adams proclaimed a day of fasting to be observed on March 23, 1798. Conversely, in especially good times, the authorities would proclaim a day of thanksgiving to express their proper gratitude to Heaven for having received blessings from the Almighty.

If we look at the 1701 rules governing the behavior of students at Yale College, then a staunchly Protestant institution, we can see this distinction between regular holy days and occasional ones:

Rule #4 “Every Student of the College Shall diligently attend upon the Duties of Religious Worship, both Public and Private of the Sabbath Day…and on Days of public fasting and Thanksgiving appointed by Authority…upon penalty of four pence for absence without sufficient reason on either Part of the Sabbath or any Day of Public Fasting or Thanksgiving and…one Penny for coming Tardy…”

Our American Thanksgiving, therefore, is not in its inception a borrowing from the Bible, and certainly not from the Judaism that we practice.

Nonetheless, we can take heart: From a Jewish perspective, Thanksgiving does represent some very fine aspects of America. Our people have taken a prominent role in celebrating religious freedom and inter-faith amity as a jewel in the crown of American life. We correctly identify George Washington as an early spokesman of the vision that America is a land that gives “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” allowing adherents of all religions to leave peacefully together. And so, since President Washington did issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation, our American Jewish “take” on Thanksgiving focuses on the Colonial and early Federal part of our history. We often read Washington’s and Lincoln’s proclamations in our worship services for that week. We celebrate what America has represented for Jews, then and now. The Thanksgiving that American Jews celebrate is one that highlights the blessing of religious freedom, both for minorities and for society in general. America is good for the Jews, and Jews have been good for America.

Perhaps other Americans have a different focus for this national holiday. But our interpretation, if not the only one, is still an inspiration.

Happy Thanksgiving! And, may I say, “Gut Yontiff!”

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel