Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving and Sukkot

What could be more Jewish than surviving great difficulties and thanking God by having a large feast? Thanksgiving and sukkot may be a lot more related than you think.  My family's cornucopia was always made with exactly the same harvest decorations that we used for decorating the sukkah, but that is only the beginning.

 Here are some websites with good comparisons of the two holidays, and good explanations of why Thanksgiving is, indeed, a Jewish holiday.

There is a strong thread which runs from the Israelite wilderness experience to that of the Pilgrims and the harsh years they endured as they strove to sink roots in this new land. Like the ancient Israelites of whom they read in the Bible, they were people of great faith who believed themselves to be sustained through God's great mercy and beneficence. That they should rejoice and give thanks at harvest time was as natural an impulse for the Pilgrims as it was for the ancient Israelites.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has written a special Thanksgiving prayer that can supplement the Birkat HaMazon. The English reads: "In the days of the Pilgrims, the Puritans, when they arrived at these safe shores, suffered hunger and cold. They sang and prayed to the Rock of their Salvation. And You, standing by them, roused the caring of the Natives for them: who fed them, turkey and corn and other delights. "Thus saved You them from starvation, and they learned the ways of peace with the inhabitants of the land. Therefore, feeling grateful, they dedicated a day of Thanksgiving each year as a remembrance for future generations, feeding unfortunates feasts of thanks. Thus do we thank You for all the good in our lives, God of kindness, Lord of Peace; thus do we thank You."
According to Rabbi Susan Grossman, the popularity of Thanksgiving among Jewish families should be of no suprise. In her blogpost, “Thanksgiving Is a Very Jewish Holiday,” Grossman says, “After Passover and Hanukkah, Thanksgiving is perhaps the most observed by American Jews.” Grossman points to the holiday’s intersection with core Jewish values as the reason for its popularity. “Thanksgiving, as in giving thanks, is a very Jewish thing to do,” she says. “According to tradition, Jews are to give thanks 100 times each day. We are to give thanks before we eat, for having food, and after we eat, for having been able to have food.” Another reason, she explains, is our Jewish history of immigration. “America has been good to the Jews,” she writes. “We have always lived here in relative safety. Our rights as a minority religion are protected by law and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”

And this is a wonderful new tradition you might want to consider: a short Thanksgiving Seder in which we bring the story of Thanksgiving right to the dinner table, just as we do on Passover, and in which we add specifically Jewish blessings to a meal of Thanksgiving.

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