Legend has it that the first Thanksgiving was a sort of neighborhood block party when settlers invited local Indians to a festive celebration with tables piled high with all sorts of yummy delights.
But that’s not how it happened. The real story is that the English settlers observed that first Thanksgiving after a year of numbing adversity. Years later it was a popular Jewish holiday that informed the national Thanksgiving celebration.
The very first Thanksgiving wasn’t celebrated in the autumn. The date was July 30, 1623 after what we Jews would call a year of tsuris – a year of terrible trouble. The winter had been bitterly cold, dozens perished from starvation, disease, and violence and a spring drought resulted in the death of nearly 250 of the 350 settlers.
On July 30th, the drought finally broke on the very same day a ship arrived from England bringing much-needed supplies. Overjoyed, the Pilgrims observed their first Thanksgiving on a blistering summer afternoon.
It was hardly a time of plenty; in fact, it was a time of extreme deprivation. Nonetheless and over the objections of some, these settlers gave thanks by word and deed. They praised God and invited the very tribe who had attacked them to sit with them at their dining table and share a meal.
In fact, historians believe that it was Governor William Bradford who opened the ceremony with a recitation of the Hebrew blessing, birkat ha-gomel, (from Psalm 107). To this day this blessing is repeated for those who have been spared from mortal danger.
In a recent article, “The Jewish Roots of Thanksgiving,” that appeared in the B’nai Jehudah (Overland, KS) synagogue newsletter, we read that William Bradford, Puritan separatist and Governor of the Plymouth Colony, 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.”
Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer (Reform Judaism.org) explains that “There are strong historical connections between Judaism and Thanksgiving. Most of the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving were Puritans, a branch of the Protestant faith. The Puritans strongly identified with the historical traditions and customs of the Israelites in the Bible.”
Rabbi Eisenkramer goes on to say, “Most of the Puritans had Hebrew names and there was even a proposal to make Hebrew the language of the colonies!”
It was not until 240 years had passed that Thanksgiving became a national holiday. Once again it didn’t come in a period of plenty. Instead, it came in the dark hours of the Civil War.
In 1863 Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation appointing the last Thursday in November the day of observance called Thanksgiving. And interestingly, as the Puritans had done more than two centuries earlier, Lincoln based the establishment of this new American holiday on the Jewish festival of Sukkot – the biblical festival of gratitude to God for the fruits of the harvest.
So the lesson of Thanksgiving is this; no matter what’s happening – if the river dries up, or the food runs out, if the pandemic hits, or if your family is sad or suffering – no matter what happens, if we are willing, we can find a reason to be thankful.
As Rabbi Eisenkramer reminds us; “From the historical connections of the Puritans to Sukkot and the Torah, to the primary importance in Judaism of saying thank you to God for all our blessings, Thanksgiving is a holiday steeped in Jewish values.”
“Hi ne ma tov u manaim shevat achim gam yachad.” These are Hebrew words from psalm 133 – words that mean: “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity” – something we can do even this year as we maintain social distance around our family table or Zoom in to share the holiday virtually with those near and far..
In these days when diversity is not only recognized but appreciated, we are reminded to acknowledge and celebrate our differences while at the same time we are grateful that even in our darkest hours, we are united as brothers and sisters and as neighbors and friends. Hag Thanksgiving Sameach!