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No, Thanksgiving is not Sukkot

Actually, the Jewish connection is much cooler than we had thought.

A depiction of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Image by J.L.G. Ferris/LOC/Creative Commons

(RNS) — I once had a friend who would occasionally report on something that was going on in her mind — an impression she had, that she could not prove, but she was pretty sure was true.

She would say: “I’m telling myself a story …”

At this season, and especially this week, we American Jews tell ourselves a particular story — that the Pilgrims based Thanksgiving on Sukkot.

Why wouldn’t we believe this story? Sukkot celebrates the harvest, as does Thanksgiving. Sukkot is about gratitude, as is Thanksgiving. Sukkot carries within it the theme of hospitality, as does Thanksgiving.

Except, it’s not quite true.

First, the Pilgrims did not believe in fixed holidays. In the words of Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University: “If it was a good season, they would announce a thanksgiving, but it was not Sukkot.”

Second, there was a crucial element of Sukkot the pilgrims neglected — and that was to build Sukkot. Neither do we have any record of them shaking lulav and etrog.

But, third, the Pilgrims were Christians. For them, the covenant at Calvary, sealed in the blood of Jesus, would have negated the covenant at Sinai. While they might have found spiritual inspiration in what they called the “Old Testament,” they would not have observed any Jewish rituals and certainly would not have observed any Jewish holidays.

So, was Thanksgiving the American Sukkot? Probably not.

But, having said that: there is a Jewish linkage to Thanksgiving that we have not known — and it is far better than the faulty Sukkot linkage.

Let us ask ourselves a simple question.

How did the Pilgrims even know that they should give thanks?

Was it simply that basic human instinct — to express gratitude?

Actually, not.

The Pilgrim leader, William Bradford, had a copy of the Bible on the Mayflower. He would later become the governor of Plymouth Colony.

His edition of the Bible contained handwritten notes that a Puritan scholar, Henry Ainsworth, had placed within the margins.

Ainsworth had written out a list of events that require a prayer of thanksgiving to God.

The sick, when he is healed; the prisoner when he is released out of bonds; they that go down to sea, when they are come up to land; and wayfaring men, when they are come to the inhabited land.

Whom does Ainsworth quote as his authority for when you are supposed to give thanks?

Maimonides.

Ainsworth had copied over an English version of Maimonides’ comprehensive legal code, the Mishneh Torah — specifically, the laws of giving thanks.

Therefore, the entire holiday of Thanksgiving is not only quintessentially American.

It is also quintessentially Jewish, though not for the reasons we have traditionally thought.

In fact, it is much more powerful than we have traditionally thought.

Why do I say that?

Because, we American Jews like to tell another story about America — the “Judeo-Christian tradition.”

I recently picked that “tradition” apart — and my colleague Mark Silk has his own take on it — but the idea has a certain weight for many people.

What was the gist of that fabled “Judeo-Christian” tradition? It was the belief that we Americans believed in the Bible — in both testaments.

It was certainly true that America built itself partially on the stories of the Bible, especially of the Israelites escaping from Egypt and coming to the Promised Land.

It was also true that this American nation built itself upon a deep sense of biblical and even Hebrew literacy.

  • The coat of arms of Yale University contains the Hebrew words Urim and Tumim, the ancient biblical oracles.
  • Hebrew was a required language at both Harvard and Yale — primarily because they were training men, and only men, for the Christian ministry.
  • The first book printed on these shores was the Bay Psalm Book, published in 1640 as a translation from the Hebrew.
  • Consider the preponderance of biblical place names in colonial America: Salem, Canaan, Bethel, Jericho.
  • Early Americans loved to give Hebrew names to their children — Nathaniel, Abigail, Jonathan — and they gave those names in far greater numbers than they did the names of Christian saints.

So, yes: The founding of America was biblical. The Bible has been part of American culture. The notion of a Judeo-Christian tradition enshrines that.

That is the problem with the idea of Judeo-Christian. Its idea of Judeo is seriously limited.

Most American Christians do not understand that Judaism is far more than the Hebrew Bible. Talmud, midrash, medieval and modern Jewish theology — well, if they knew the word gornischt, that is what they would say. For many American Christians, Jewish history jumps from King David, or perhaps Esther, directly to the Shoah and the creation of Israel.

They do not understand that the Judaism Jews practice today is mostly post-biblical in nature. The blessings we say, the liturgy we pray, even and especially Hanukkah that comes to us later this week — all are post-biblical.

That is what is so wondrous about the inclusion of this little marginal note in the Bible of the Mayflower. It was not biblical. It was an example of the post-biblical medieval Jewish thought that profoundly influenced this country.

Or, to put it this way: Maimonides was the greatest Jewish thinker in history. He was so great that were it not for him — this man who lived four centuries before the discovery of the New World — we would not have been sitting down with our families on our turkey- and stuffing-laden tables.

I end with the words of Robert Cushman. He had been a deacon when the English Puritans lived in Leyden, Holland. When they left Holland, he followed his congregation to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and there, he declared:

We are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners; most properly, having no dwelling but this earthen tabernacle. Our dwelling is but a wandering; and our abiding, but as a hastening away; and, in a word, our home is nowhere but in the heavens; in that house not made with hands, whose maker and builder is God.

Let that be the truth we preserve for ourselves, as well.