The Zionist Roots of Thanksgiving

William Bradford, circa 1640. Source “Of Plimoth Plantation”, State Library of Massachusetts

I’ve heard many interpretations on the significance the Plymouth Colony settlers first Thanksgiving. I’ve also heard it conjectured that the first Thanksgiving was modeled after the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, always as speculation. In researching this possible connection, I found a startling and hopeful thread; an affection for the Jews and Judaism of the Bible and a desire to find their faith in identifying with Jews.      

It is an insight that is a welcome departure from the toxic anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments that trouble us today. Even more surprising, I also found in William Bradford’s own handwriting, something I’ll guess you won’t be seeing elsewhere this Chag Hodaya (Thanksgiving): pages and pages written in Hebrew, and a surprising explanation why.

William Bradford was a Zionist.  

William Bradford, the “governour” of the Plymouth Colony wrote “Of Plymouth Plantation,” a handwritten text 269 single-sided pages long, not including notes he added on the blank sides. He started writing in the first bitter winter of 1620-21 and finished 25 years later. Bradford’s storm tossed group of settlers landed that first bitter winter and soon recognized that spring would have been a better call as their provisions ran low and half of the 102 members of their party that set sail, survived nine months till that first Thanksgiving. Indeed Bradford’s writing is far darker than the cheerful illustrations we favor of pilgrims and Native Americans smorgasbording as one around a table laden with turkey and corn. A lurid storyteller, Bradford’s mentions Satan, England and its “cruell torments” before any mention of the G-d, providence, or thanksgiving. He tells of the settlers thankfulness at landing, but also their loneliness and resignation at the prospect of death on hostile shores.    

Bradford also talks in cautionary terms about the “Indeans,” from their first landfall and armed confrontation with them, muskets blasting and swords flashing, to tales of Indians stealing tools, food and many other conflicts. Indeed, if it weren’t for having with them Squanto as an interpreter and intermediary, they may well have perished altogether. Squanto was a Native American who had been kidnapped by earlier British sailors 10 years earlier and abducted to England.  

Am I correct that these Christian Pilgrims loved Jews and Jewishness or did they see themselves in the toxic strain of modern Christianity called “Replacement Theology,” which believes that G-d is done with the Jews and that terms such as “Israel” or “Zion” or any blessing to the sons of Abraham refer to them, not literal Jews? Bradford would have had little contact with actual Jews in the Old World. Jews would have been to them, at best, an abstraction.  

The first Thanksgiving feast that Bradford records, he sent out hunters to bring back plenty of foul and game and 90 Indian men joined them for three days. I imagine it was a heroic effort of trust to set aside offences and conflicts and for the 52 surviving pilgrims to entertain this greater number of Indian guests for what was actually a three-day visit, not one evening.  

W. DeLoss Love’s 1895 book, “Fasts and Thanksgiving Days of New England,” tells us that when a regular feast day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1623, it was not a single day, but a week of celebration, not a day [p. 71], which followed after a day of fasting. That does certainly sound like the Jewish Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, followed by a week of harvest thanksgiving, Sukkot. I have to wonder how they would decide that Yom Kippur was for fasting, since the text alone says to “afflict your souls,” unless they knew Jewish practice.  

But what you may find shocking, are the pages upon pages meticulously penned by Bradford where he seems to be teaching himself to read and write Hebrew. There are pages of vocabulary lists in Hebrew and English as verses from the scriptures. (He is clearly teaching himself, put proofreading aside). He explains why: that “though I have become old,” like Moses longed to see the Land, he longed to know that authentic tongue “in which G-d and angels spoke to the Patriarchs.” Though he had devoted his life to a community of Christian faith in the new world, he thirsts for Haaretz, the Land of Israel, and says he’ll be content with just a glimpse.  He thirsted for a return to the land, the language, the Promise of Israel.

Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation was a Zionist.    


Here is William Bradford’s artfully composed poem and his Hebrew self-instruction.  

Source “Of Plimoth Plantation”, State Library of Massachusetts

Though I am growne aged, yet I have had a long-
ing desire, to see with my own eyes, something of
that most ancient language, and holy tongue,
in which the Law, and oracles of G-d were
write; and in which G-d, and angels, spake to
the holy patriarks, of old time; and what
names were given to things, from the
creation. And though I cañot attaine
to much herein, yet I am refreshed,
to have seen some glimpse here-
of; (as Moses saw the Land
of Canan afarr of) my aime
and desire is, to see how
the words, and phrases
lye in the holy texte;
and to dicerne some-
what of the same
for my owne


About the Author
Steve Brown is an architect who studied at the University of Pennsylvania with professional degrees in architecture, landscape architecture and environmental design. He has headed an architecture and construction firm since 1985 in the Philadelphia, PA area.
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