Thanksgiving: Combining Jewish and American Tradition

Although Thanksgiving isn't officially a Jewish holiday, it embodies ancient Jewish values. Here are some ideas to enhance the Jewishness of Thanksgiving as we salute this important American holiday.

The Jewishness of Thanksgiving

Shalom Everyone...

Happy Thanksgiving.

While Thanksgiving in not officially a Jewish holy day, our tradition does encourage us to partake in secular holidays when the values of that holiday are consistent with those of Judaism.

Indeed, during Temple times, those of Jewish faith, and those who aligned themselves with Judaism would offer sacrifices of todah (thank you).  

Tradition also tells us that whenever Jews gather for a meal, it is incumbent upon us to invite to God to the table.

Within this spirit, here are some prayers and ideas to help enhance your Thanksgiving.

A Thanksgiving Prayer

By Rabbi Naomi Levy  

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these.  Amen.

A focus on acts of Lovingkindness (G'milut Chassadim)

Here are some tangible acts which can enhance a Jewish Thanksgiving.

* Recite blessings. Recite the Hebrew blessings for wine and bread before the Thanksgiving meal.  

* Hassidic tradition. Adapt the Hassidic Passover custom and ask everyone present to add a drop of wine to the goblet before reciting the wine blessing. As you do, tell of one thing that you are thankful for this year.

* Give thanks after the meal. Ensure that the cooks and servers, and most of all God are thanked for the blessings of food and nourishment.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, has written a supplemental prayer of Thanksgiving to be recited as a grace after the meal. It is written in the classic Chanukah and Purim mode. 

"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 you saved 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. ... Thus do we thank you for all the good in our lives ..."     

* Create a Thanksgiving Seder. Create a Thanksgiving Seder plate and place objects on it which signify the blessings of our nation and/or things for which you are personally thankful. Besides displaying and explaining these objects at the meal, you could also read or tell stories of the first Thanksgiving, followed by a retelling of your family's own saga of finding freedom in America.  

* Invite someone far from home to Thanksgiving dinner. Technological innovations such as Skype make it possible for someone alone and far from home to feel part of the family festival.

Another Thanksgiving prayer.

By Rabbi Maralee Gordon

In this moment, mindful of our many blessings,

May we form an intent to carry gratitude with us continually.

May we leave fear and jealousy by the wayside.

Making room in our hearts for contentment, satisfaction and compassion.

May we start each day counting our blessings:

The blessing of being alive,

The many miracles of the living world we are one with,

The ability we possess to love and to be loved,

The many gifts and talents we have been graced with,

The support we receive

And the support we are able to extend.

May our gratitude lead to action.

May we express our gratitude.

May we smile when we encounter each other on the path.

May we seek opportunities to share our talents with others.

May we express our love to one another.

May we give with no expectation of receiving.

May we seek to repair what is broken.

May we end each day counting the day's blessings.

Those we have received and those we have bestowed.

May we be a blessing.


The holiday of Thanksgiving is a wonderful time entrenched in American tradition. As a newcomer to this country, I observe a rare and precious overlap between secular and religious values. It is why the holiday is so much a part of Judeo-American culture.

Best wishes to all for a happy Thanksgiving. We have so much to be thankful for. Bless our families and friends.  Let us also give thanks for what the recent hurricane taught us.  We thank God  for helping us to distinguish between darkness and light.  We thank God for shelter and food and for life.

Baruch HaShem. Thank you God, for all we have. 

Kol tuv, (with all goodness)

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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Allie's Grandpa November 24, 2012 at 05:29 AM
Just to keep this all on the up-and-up: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/thanksgiving/washington.asp But, what was posted before still contain a valid assessment of what it all means.
JOE November 25, 2012 at 01:05 AM
Dad of three you are wrong . Putting Up CHristmas has everything to do with the holiday spirit. It is called TRADITION. Let me ask you.what does having bbq's on. The 4th of july have to do with. The annual celebration of our nations history? Did our founding sfathers have a bbq after signing the constitution? Probably not. So should not. Be so baffled. By tradition. And using words like flummoxed does not work if your trying to impres people.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman November 25, 2012 at 02:47 AM
Thank you all for this healthy exchange. As a Canadian transplant and a rabbi, I am observing how Americans balance the historical, religious and secular influences around Thanksgiving, Christmas and even Hallowe'en. A series of two thousand year old Jewish writings, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Sages) notes that a meal without some ethical discussion - or teaching of children -- is indeed empty. It's one reason why I wrote the above piece. It's always a good thing to give thanks at the table not just on Thanksgiving, but on any occasion. The practice of providing a Todah (thank you) offering initiated dueing Biblical times, rings true today. Giving thanks every day need not be labelled as 'religious.' It's just the right thing to do, whether we thank the cooks, the servers, or God who this sacred process in motion. Rabbi Irwin Huberman
Dad of Three November 25, 2012 at 04:37 AM
For JOE, you did not read very carefully. I posted: "Those lights have nothing, whatsoever, to do with the original Feast of Christmas, whether from the perspective of Roman Catholic or Anglican or Orthodox or Evangelical or other Christian churches." I was differentiating the civic and community holiday (for which those lights and wreaths and trees and more are a traditional part), from the religious feast of Christmas, or The Nativity. The lights are part of the civic holiday tradition, but they are decidedly NOT part of the religious feast day. Many of us celebrate both aspects (as I do), but you certainly can have one without the other, as millions of other Americans do.
Laura C. November 27, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Lights actually do have a place in the Christmas tradition. Christmas's roots actually go farther back than Christianity, and in pre-Christian Europe, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, was celebrated by lighting the darkness. This is where the tree decorating comes from, too, and was later adopted by Christians. Lights work really nicely with the Christian tradition as well, with the star of Bethlehem and Jesus symbolizing a new light and new religion. Light is also a main component of Hanukkah. Plus they look nice, and traditions are ever-changing and often personal. I, for one, like to plaster lights on everything!


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