This is a question I had often been asked throughout my childhood, especially in school. My answer: YES!
I’m not going to lie though. For the longest time as a kid, I thought Jews did not typically celebrate Thanksgiving. I come from an interfaith family where my mother is Jewish and my dad grew up Catholic. We would always spend Thanksgiving with my Dad’s family. So, I just associated the holiday as a Catholic holiday always spent with my Catholic family. It wasn’t until one year, we celebrated with my mother’s side. I never asked anybody or admitted it to anybody, but in my head I thought, “Oh. I guess this is just a holiday for everyone!” Looking back I’m like, “DUH. Come on, Rach.” I can’t help but laugh every time that thought comes to mind. I laugh because of how oblivious I was (and maybe still am) but I also kind of now understand why people had always asked me that. I’ve never really looked at Thanksgiving through a Jewish lens. But now, just over 3 months into working for Hillel, it’s only normal that I put a Jewish twist on anything that comes my way.
As Americans, we are a very thankful bunch. There are many holidays on our calendar year that encompass all aspects of gratitude, and remind ourselves to take the time to look around and take in all the good that has been brought into our lives. There’s Veteran’s Day where we thank those who have served this country. On Labor Day we express gratitude towards those who keep the wheels on our American economy turning. Memorial Day recognizes those who made great sacrifices in defending our great nation. The list goes on and on! But then Thanksgiving is the day where we recognize all those aspects of gratitude in one.
Rabbi Naftali Silberberg, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute says, “As Jews, we always look to the Torah for a deeper perspective. What light does the Torah shed on the wonderful trait of thankfulness?” (Silberberg, 2012). Great question, Rabs. Deuteronomy 26:1-12 for instance tells us that there is a mitzvah (good deed) for expressing gratitude which is called bikkurim. The verses in the Torah goes on to tell us that during the Temple era, every farmer was commanded to bring the Holy Temple in Jerusalem the first fruits which ripened in his orchard. There he would recite a passage thanking God for the Land and its bountiful harvest, and the fruits were given to the kohanim (priests). This is taken as far as saying that Israel was given to the Jews as a reward for bikkurim (Silberberg, 2012).
After discussing with a few students, they expressed to me that everyday is like Thanksgiving for Jews. Our days are full of “thank-you’s” over the course of prayer. From reciting the “Birkat Hamazon” after every meal and showing gratitude for the food that has fulfilled our hunger (or hanger in some cases), to thanking God for our abilities to learn, grow, and wake up everyday. So, why highlight a specific mitzvah about showing our gratitude? Well, Rabs also provides us with an answer to this questions as well. He explains, “[the] difference between bikkurim and all the other ways we thank God [is that] bikkurim involves more than just words—it requires a commitment; the gratitude must express itself in deeds. Bikkurim implies that our thankfulness to God cannot remain in the realm of emotions, thoughts, or even speech, but must also move us to action” (Siberberg, 2012).
Ahh yes, actions! Jews are always stressing the importance of our actions whether it’s practicing a mitzvah or giving back to those who truly need it. On the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we repent and ask for forgiveness for a sweet new year ahead. We also thank God for the year we had, even if all the days were not as sweet as we would have wanted them to be. Growing up, my Temple Youth Group would collect hundreds of pounds of food to donate to our local pantry on the high holy days. Again, we wanted to live out our mitzvahs, because that was our duty as Jews. There are so many more instances like this one. This also ties us back to Deuteronomy when saying we “give back the first of our fruit”, the best we can, to express the gratitude we have for God giving us all the fruit we could possibly have (Deuteronomy 26:1-12).
Yes, Thanksgiving is always the last Thursday in November. But let us remember that there are ways to give thanks and truly express the same kind of gratitude everyday of the year! Judaism has taught me that our actions can speak volumes when it comes to expressing gratitude. That and we can always celebrate with copious amounts of yummy, yummy food.