America’s Hebrew Foundations

On the fourth Thursday of November, Americans celebrate a national day of Thanksgiving, recalling the first celebration by the Pilgrims who arrived on the shores of America and who survived the first year in the wilderness, aided by friendly natives (Indians).

At the special feast, the highlight of the meal is the carving, serving and eating of a turkey. Unbeknown to Americans, the fowl was given its name by a Jew in 1492.

Luis de Torres sailed with Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to America, arriving in San Salvador. De Torres was fluent in Hebrew and Arabic and served Columbus as his interpreter. When he first spotted the large birds on the island, he gave them a Hebrew name from the Bible. “Tukki” (the Hebrew word for a parrot) ultimately became known as turkey. So when Americans sit at their festive tables, let them remember that the bird they are eating was named by a Spanish Jew in 1492.

Of the 90 men who set sail with Columbus en route to the Indies, there were 5 Jews who had been forced by the Spanish crown to convert to Christianity. They were known as “marranos”. Two of them were physicians,  Bernal and Marco, the interpreter was Luis de Torres, and two who helped to finance the voyage, Luis Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez.

Early American colonial history was immersed in the Bible. The pilgrim fathers referred to themselves as the “new Israelites” and to America as the “new promised land”.

All Americans today recognize the national emblem of their country as the eagle. But the very first American emblem was a picture of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

Additionally, the American national motto engraved on their coinage today is the Latin “E Pluribus Unum”… out of many, one.

But the first national motto was “Rebellion against tyranny is obedience to God”, taken directly from the Book of Maccabees, recalling Israel’s victory over the Hellenistic Greek rulers and the tyrant Antiochus who we recall on Chanukah.

The Liberty Bell which hangs in Philadelphia is inscribed with words taken from the Hebrew biblical book VaYikra, Leviticus: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”.

In 1636, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts required every student to study Hebrew grammar in order to be graduated.

The first Jew to be graduated from Harvard was Judah Monis who received an M.A. degree in 1720 but in order to teach at Harvard he was required to be baptized as a Christian and in 1722 he was appointed Instructor in Hebrew, a position he held until 1760.

Interestingly, while American universities did accept a few Jewish students since the 17th century, England did not admit Jews to universities until 1871.

Monis published the first grammar of the Hebrew language printed in America, “A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue”.

Similarly, Dr. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University in Connecticut  from 1778 to 1795. a learned Hebraist and a Congregational minister, required the student who was chosen to deliver the Valedictorian remarks to do so in the Hebrew language.

There were few Jews living in colonial America at the time, 2500 at the time of the American Revolution, and yet  many Jews enlisted in the army to defend America against the British.

17th century America was steeped in Hebrew learning and Biblical studies. Most of the early American universities prepared students to be missionaries to the Indian tribes.

Judges in the courts took their oath of office on the Old Testament rather than on the New Testament.

Among America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were well-versed in Hebrew and wrote letters to one another in Hebrew in order to be secure from prying British eyes.

Unfortunately, most American Jews are unaware of the influence of the Hebrew Bible upon the early foundations of American history.

In 1941 a large statue was erected In Chicago with three figures: George Washington in the center, on one side is Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance during the Revolution, and on the other side is Hayim Solomon, the Jewish financier of the American Revolution.

America is steeped in Hebrew sources and history. The great pity is that most Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, simply do not know it.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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