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Hodu LaAdonai Ki Tob- The Jewish Approach to Thanksgiving

11/27/2019 02:32:51 PM


Yosef Lopez


There is an erroneous belief that Jews shouldn't celebrate Thanksgiving in the same manner as our gentile neighbors. Some go further and say that to mark the day in any way what so ever is to be following in the ways of the nations, which the Tora prohibits us from doing. This idea is not only wrong but springs from an approach that is not only ignorant of Judaism but our history as a people. 

Many Jewish communities scattered throughout our Diaspora have a unique and local Purim. That is to say that there is a day that the community has set aside to remember a time when the community was on the verge of destruction only to be saved last minute by the hand of God. One such example is Purim de Saragossa. This story takes place sometime during the 14th century, where the King of Aragon visited the town of Saragossa to much fanfare. To show their appreciation to the King, the Jews came and paraded before the King carrying their sifrei Tora, singing before him. However, they didn't bring the actual Tora scrolls out in their parade, only the vestidos that covered them. This way they could honor the King with a symbolic gesture while maintaining the safety and sanctity of the Scrolls. There was a man, an apostate, named Marco, who knew that vistidos were empty. He formulated a plot and came to the King afterward in the capital. He claimed that the Jews meant to mock him, and this enraged the King. Marco took the opportunity to convince the King that he should punish all the Jews by exiling them from the land. The King agreed, but he wanted to be sure that what Marco was saying was true. He said to Marco, "The next time I go to Saragoza, you will ride next to me. When the Jews come out to dance before me, I give you authority to check their scrolls, to see if they are indeed empty, and they mean to mock me" 

The night before the King's next visit, the Shamash of the community was having an uneasy sleep. He had a dream, where Eliyahu Anavi, Elijah the Prophet, appeared to him. He warned him that there was a danger to the Jews and that he should run to the synagogue to dress all the Tora scrolls, and to make sure they come out in the parade. He awoke from his dream and ran to fulfill his mission.

When the King came the next day, the Jews paraded before the King as they had the previous time, all the while they were unaware that the Shamash had replaced the Tora scrolls into their vistidos. The king ordered Marco to open up the cases to see if they were indeed empty. This caught the community by surprise, and they became scared as they believed the King would be angry with them; but to everyone's surprise, the Scrolls were there!

The King ordered for Marco to be hung, as he tried to deceive the King. The King declared publicly that he was confident in the loyalty of the Jews, and decreed that they were exempt from paying taxes for the next three years. The Jewish community wrote this story in a scroll and commemorated that the 17th and 18th of Shevat would be a day of Thanksgiving to God for saving them from destruction. 

This is a phenomenon all over the Diaspora. Purim de Rhodes, Gunpowder Purim, Widow Purim, Vincenz Purim are just a few of the examples of thanksgiving for local salvations. Our American Thanksgiving celebration is unique, in that it doesn't commemorate salvation from group that sought our destruction, but Gratitude to God for allowing the formation of the United States, a place where tyranny is not tolerated, where we have the freedom to worship as we wish, where we a guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. President George Washington declared the first national day of Thanksgiving in that spirit, where a new nation could be thankful for the triumph of these ideals, and it is in that spirit that the Jewish community of America celebrated. As a nation within a nation, it is incumbent upon us to be thankful that we can worship in the manner specified by our Law, that we are guaranteed the same rights and liberties that others are granted. It is for these reasons that Thanksgiving is our holiday aswell. 




Practices and Prayers for Thanksgiving


Excerpted from Thanksgiving Practices and Prayers by Rabbi Haim Ovadia.


1. Even when they were under the heel of Babylonia, the empire which destroyed the First Temple, the Jews were directed by the prophet Jeremiah to settle in the land, prosper and succeed, and pray for the well-being of the Empire, for “when it has peace, you will have peace.” Our Sages also taught us in tractate Avoth, or the Teachings of our Fathers that: “one should always pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for fear of the government, society would have deteriorated into chaos.” Therefore, in all of their wanderings, the Israelites used to pray for the well-being of the local government, even when they were persecuted and marginalized. The famous prayer for Kings was first written, ironically, in honor of King Ferdinand of Spain. This is what Jews did under oppressive and hostile regimes, so there is a much greater obligation for those of us who, thank God, live under benevolent and just governments, to show gratitude to the Creator and solidarity with all citizens of our country. American Jews particularly should acknowledge the great miracle of the discovery of America and the subsequent founding of the United States of America. We must thank God for delivering us from belligerent and oppressive regimes and creating for us a haven, where we were given unprecedented freedom of religion (there were exceptions, but they cannot compare to what we have experienced in the past). We also thank God for the United States’ unwavering support of the State of Israel, and the knowledge that it is our ally in the quest for peace and democracy.


2. For that reason, American Jews, as well as Jews everywhere, should thank and praise God on the national holiday of Thanksgiving. Those who celebrate it in the traditional American way, with turkey, pumpkin pie, etc., are fulfilling the Mitzvah of showing gratitude. They also sanctify God's name as they show solidarity, loyalty, and comradery.


3. Even though eating turkey is customary, if one chooses not to do so because of dietary restrictions, health concerns, or on moral grounds, one could eat instead tofu-turkey or an all-vegetarian meal. Even on Shabbat and Yom Tov, the Halakha exempts people from eating under such circumstances. 


4. Some say that one should not celebrate Thanksgiving because of the atrocities committed against the original inhabitants of the land, the Native Americans. This is indeed a shameful chapter in American history and one which should never be forgotten. However, the main idea of the holiday is to give thanks for the opportunity to find refuge from the religious and oppressive regimes of the Old World. One should, therefore, tell the full story of Native Americans on Thanksgiving, and find a way to contribute towards causes important to them.


5. One should not say Tahanun (supplications) on Thanksgiving because it is a festive day, and the prayer for the well-being of the government and the nation should be recited when the Torah is taken out of the Ark. The rabbi or cantor should recite a psalm of their choice (for example 8, 24 or 46), as well as the following prayer:

 At the time of the wicked Torquemada, and Fernando and Isabel of Spain, all Jews were forced to abandon their religion or face torture and death. Many were tortured and executed and many more Jewish refugees perished in their excruciating journey out of Spain and Portugal. You have guided Bene Anusim, to discover a new world and a haven for them. The founding fathers then established a country based on the eternal values of Your Torah and declared freedom of religion for all humans. Though they have initially committed the sin of slavery, they were able to amend the constitution and to recognize the equality of all humans and their creation in the Image of God. More than any country or nation in history, The United States has proven itself to be a loyal ally and protector of the Jewish People and the State of Israel. May You continue to guard and assist this great nation and your faithful people in their quest for peace and democracy and in annihilating evil from the world. We thank You for Your great mercy and miracles and we praise Your name forever. Amen.

Happy Thanksgiving!

For a Special Thanksgiving Service in the Spanish and Portuguese custom by Hakham Dr. David De Sola Pool Click HERE

For George Washington's letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport click HERE

For more thoughts on Thanksgiving click HERE 

Mon, April 19 2021 7 Iyyar 5781