One of the columns I am most frequently asked to reprise is about Thanksgiving. It is the one holiday that is eagerly anticipated in both observant and non-observant Jewish households.
To the non-observant, it is a way of participating in an American observance with no religious overtones, just as America prepares to celebrate a holiday with very serious – and very non-Jewish – religious overtones. To the observant, as the late Rabbi Israel Miller of blessed memory used to say, it is the one chance in the entire year that the entire family can gather in one place because traveling is neither prohibited for some nor restricted for others.
Ironically, Thanksgiving’s origin is religious, not secular. The bigger irony is which religion it is that gave us Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims, you see, patterned their festival of thanksgiving on the one we only recently finished celebrating – Sukkot.
Our Bible – the Torah, specifically – was what guided the Pilgrims, says the historian H.B. Alexander. 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.”)
By all accounts, the Pilgrims often turned to “the Hebrew Bible” – the Tanakh – for advice and guidance. At least some of the pilgrims (most notably the Mather family) studied the Tanakh in the original Hebrew.
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 Cotton Mather, in his history of the Puritans in America, 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 Puritan “preoccupation with the Bible colored all their activities,” wrote Abraham I. Katsh in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1st edition. Not only were these settlers “imbued with the spirit of the Prophets and with the lessons of the Scriptures,” he wrote, “but they also accepted biblical precepts and commandments literally and applied them vigorously.”
“Biblical Judaism thus served as a touchstone for America’s early settlers,” we read in the 2nd edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “and it was this spirit that infused the colonization of the New World with intense religious devotion.”
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 Paul Masserman and Max 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 usually 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 feastâ€¦. Seven days shall you keep a solemn feast to the Lord your God â€¦ 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 the Pilgrims here. The deterioration soon evolved into full-fledged fighting.
One can only guess at why the white Christian settlers turned on the Wampanoag, who lived – and thrived – in Massachusetts back then. 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.
There were many reasons for why the Christian settlers turned on the natives. One was their religious beliefs; they saw the American Indian as pagans and sought to “save” them. Another was a belief about who they thought the Native Americans actually were:
Wrote the historian Samuel 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 Thomas Thorowgood, 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 the 1621 Thanksgiving that we commemorate each year, the revisionist scholars notwithstanding. Its Jewish roots are undeniable, which probably explains why it is the one religious-rooted American holiday with which we are perfectly comfortable.