The Jewish Roots of Thanksgiving

November 26, 2015

2 min read

Tuly Weisz

When I used to live in the United States, my curious non-Jewish friends would ask me at this time of year whether I, an Orthodox rabbi, celebrate Thanksgiving?  The mere question reminds me that we still have much to learn about each other, because the answer is so obvious once you understand what Thanksgiving is all about.

Every American Kindergartner knows the story how the Pilgrims on the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and gave thanks for their survival and successes.  What most people don’t know, however, was that the Pilgrims looked deeply towards the Bible for inspiration which established the Book of Books as the foundation for the New World.

Unlike any other group before them, the Pilgrims were fleeing from religious oppression in Europe. They looked to the Bible for guidance and even studied Biblical Hebrew in order to read it in the original.

The Pilgrims saw themselves as the chosen people fleeing from the brutal King James I, whom they referred to as Pharaoh, thereby casting off their yoke of bondage and oppression.  They referred to their voyage on the Mayflower as passing through the Red Sea into the wilderness and when they arrived in what they referred to as the “Promised Land”, they offered thanks and prayer to God, like the biblical Feast of Tabernacles.

No other group in history had ever felt that they were reenacting and fulfilling the experience of the Israelites as did America’s first settlers.  For centuries, European explorers had set sail for new lands without referring to the Bible, seeing themselves as God’s chosen people, or searching for the Promised Land.

The history of early Americans who looked towards the Biblical narrative for inspiration doesn’t end with the first Thanksgiving. In fact, that’s only where the story begins.

At the first presidential inauguration in 1789, George Washington held up the procedures until a Bible was found, insisting upon swearing his oath of office upon it, a tradition that has continued to this day.

Every American president has referred to the Hebrew Bible in his inauguration address, comparing his generation to Israel in the wilderness, confronted with challenges, yet on the verge of the promised land.  Former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out that not only does every American president look to the Biblical narrative for inspiration, but the United States is the only country in the world where this occurs.

The Jewish people have always claimed to have a divine mission to promote the universal values of peace, freedom and hope, but unfortunately, for the last 2,000 years, no one was listening.

From its inception, however, America was different.  Despite pockets of anti-Semitism, there has always been a distinct appreciation for the Jewish people in the United States.  The “American Dream” was built upon a Biblical foundation, and we refer regularly to America’s “Judeo-Christian values,” which is one of the principle reasons for America’s strong support for the Jewish State.

Even now that I live in Israel, my family celebrates Thanksgiving because it is the day that celebrates a proud fact, that the lessons from the Hebrew Bible have been ingrained into the American soul from its very inception.

As a Jew, I am thankful that when America was discovered, America discovered the Bible.

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