Celebrating the secular Sukkot

Celebrating the secular Sukkot

We all know about the Pilgrims and their journey to America. That story is at the heart of Thanksgiving, which we celebrated on Thursday. What most of us are not aware of, however, is that the Pilgrims patterned their festival of thanksgiving on the one we celebrated a month ago – Sukkot.

I wrote about this back in October 2008. Many people have asked to reprint that column. In essence, here it is again.

It was the Bible that guided the Pilgrims, says the historian H.B. Alexander, and specifically that part we call the Torah. It “formed their minds and dominated their characters; its conceptions were their conceptions.” (See his essay, “The Hebrew Contribution to the Americanism of the Future.”)

Indeed, it was common for the Pilgrims to turn to “the Hebrew Bible” – the Tanach – for advice and guidance. Some of the Pilgrims (notably members of the Mather family) were even able to turn to the Tanach in the original Hebrew.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day That is why the very first book ever published in North America was a translation of the Book of Psalms, with Hebrew strewn throughout in order to clarify meanings.

It was for this reason, too, that when Cotton Mather wrote a history of the Puritans in America, he referred to the early settler leaders as “our chasidim rishonim” (first righteous men) who ruled “b’ahavah v’yirah” (with love and reverence for God).

The Puritans’ “preoccupation with the Bible colored all their activities,” writes Abraham I. Katsh in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1st edition. He adds that not only were these settlers “imbued with the spirit of the Prophets and with the lessons of the Scriptures, but they also accepted biblical precepts and commandments literally and applied them vigorously.”

It is no accident, therefore, that many of the early law codes in Puritan New England were based on the Torah, rather than the Christian Bible, or English common law. For example, in “The Jews Come to America,” the historians P. Masserman and M. Baker note that half of the statutes in the Code of 1655 for the New Haven colony had their origins in Torah law, while only three percent derived from the Christian Bible.

That is where Sukkot comes in. When it came time to celebrate their bountiful first harvest, the Pilgrims did what they always did: They turned to the Torah for guidance. Here is what they found, in Deuteronomy 16:13-15:

“You shall observe the Feast of Booths seven days, after you have gathered in your grain and your wine; and you shall rejoice in your feast….Seven days shall you keep a solemn feast to the Lord your God … because the Lord your God shall bless you in all your produce, and in all the works of your hands, therefore you shall surely rejoice.”

That is what the Torah said and that is what the Pilgrims did in 1621. In fact, they celebrated this “Sukkot” at about the same time of year that we celebrate Sukkot.

The festival apparently did not recur until 1676, when it was celebrated on June 29. Eventually, it became an annual (albeit unofficial) feast on the last Thursday in November. It was not until 1863 that Thanksgiving became a national holiday and was moved to the fourth Thursday in November.

Some authorities rank the 1676 festival as the first “official” Thanksgiving, which is both wrong and unfortunate. The early relationship between the Pilgrims and the Indians was soon replaced by a growing racism among the settlers who followed in the Pilgrims’ wake. The deterioration soon evolved into full-fledged fighting.

One can only guess at why the white Christian settlers turned on the Wampanoag, who then lived – and thrived – in Massachusetts. Lasting from 1675 to 1676, “King Philip’s War” (King Philip being the name of the Wampanoag chief) was the bloodiest conflict in 17th-century New England (and it was the victory over the Indians that led to the 1676 celebration). The conflict was sparked by a continuous encroachment onto Native American land, leading to the enslavement of the natives and to their regulation by a strict Christian morality.

According to an official estimate at the time, some 600 settlers and 3,000 Native Americans lost their lives. Indeed, whole villages of Indians were wiped out. It is no wonder, then, that in 1970, on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival, this is what a Wampanoag representative had to say at the official celebration held at Plymouth Rock:

“When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe; that we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns….”

There were many reasons that the Christian settlers turned on the natives. One was their religious beliefs; they saw the American Indian as pagans and sought to “save” them.

To these settlers, however, it was not merely “paganism” that may have offended them, but who it was the settlers believed the Native Americans really were. States the historian S. Broches in his book “Jews in New England”:

“In 1649, Eliot, the missionary, proclaimed to the world that the Indians were descendants of the Jews. In 1650, Dowman, another missionary, issued an appeal to the English, that they help the Indians in the New World, on the ground that the Indians descended from Jews. And when Throwgood, in 1650, published his book ‘Jews in America,’ Eliot of Massachusetts immediately made a declaration that the 37th chapter of Ezekiel [the vision of dried bones being restored to full life] refers to the Indians.”

To “help” the Indians, by the way, is shorthand for “to help the Indians see the light and the error of their ways.”

Fortunately, it is not the 1676 Thanksgiving, but the one in 1621, that we commemorate each year, the revisionist scholars notwithstanding. Its Jewish roots are undeniable, which probably explains why it is the one religion-based American holiday with which we are perfectly comfortable.