Most people think of Thanksgiving as strictly an American creation with no particular religious connotations. Even Americans living in Israel often get together that Thursday evening and, more often, the next evening, Friday, and serve an American Thanksgiving dinner.
But think back to Sukkot. Could Thanksgiving have Jewish roots? Thanksgiving is a celebration of the ingathering of the harvest in the fall, at a time prior to the onset of the rains. Thanksgiving is placing trust in G-d as our protector. Thanksgiving is expressing gratitude for the blessings G-d has bestowed upon His people.
Now go back and substitute the word Sukkot for Thanksgiving. Isn’t this a perfect description of Sukkot, prescribed in the Book of Leviticus and celebrated for more than 3,000 years by Jews? Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles from the words for tent or hut and, today refers to a place of worship. The concept originates with the temporary shelters where the Israelites lived during their wanderings in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
Could Thanksgiving have Jewish roots?
Jews commemorate this wandering in the desert with a celebration of the festival which occurs when the last of the harvest was gathered before the onset of winter.
Since 1980, each year, thousands of Christians from the world over have a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Sukkot in a celebration sponsored by the International Christian Embassy to pray and support Israel, from Zechariah 14:16: “the nations… shall come up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.”
Research indicates that the Bible was the most influential piece of literature in Colonial America. Throughout the Old Testament, there are themes of giving thanks, particularly in the Book of Psalms, which the pilgrims undoubtedly read.
Some say the “first” Thanksgiving took place in Virginia in 1619, but history records it as taking place in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Attending were 90 Native Americans and 50 English pilgrims.
What is known is that the event took place between September 21 and November 9, the period of time when Sukkot generally occurs, and it lasted three days. From the journals of the pilgrims, recorded at that time, we also know that their harvest, the fruits of their labors, had been ingathered, like in the early times of Sukkot, and they felt grateful for the goodness of G-d because their needs had been fulfilled.
The following year, there was no similar celebration because of a drought, so the pilgrims fasted and prayed for rain, a concept somewhat akin to the Jewish water libation ceremony, which took place in the time of the Temple during the week of Sukkot. In the case of Sukkot, however, it was meant as an offering of rejoicing for the festival itself.
As the custom of a time to celebrate the harvest continued over the years, in October 1777, all thirteen colonies celebrated a harvest of eight days. Perhaps it is more than coincidental that the holiday of Sukkot also lasts for eight days.
In 1789, George Washington suggested a national day of prayer and thanksgiving to G-d for all religious denominations. By 1852, 29 states had marked the last Thursday of November as a day of “Thanksgiving”, but it was not until 11 years later, in 1863, that Abraham Lincoln appointed a “National Day of Thanksgiving” as the last Thursday of each November.
In 1879, Canada designated the second Monday in October as their Thanksgiving day.
On the tables of the pilgrims
Some research indicates that foods, which have become synonymous with the holiday of Thanksgiving, may not have actually been on the tables of the pilgrims in 1621, while other foods were served then that are not served today.
Boiled wild turkey, roast goose, roast venison and roast wild duck were all cooked on a spit and mentioned in their journals. Boiled lobster, seethed cod, Indian corn made into a pudding, hominy pudding, stewed pumpkin, fruit, cheese and whortleberries were served buffet style and eaten with spoons and knives and cloth napkins.
Whortleberries, an indigo-blue berry, were served; there is no mention, however, of the most famous berry, cranberries. However, cranberries are one of the very few fruits native to America and were used by the Indians many years prior to the coming of the pilgrims. Their quality as a natural preservative led to their being crushed and added to meat. They were also included in poultices to draw out the poison in arrow wounds, and they were also used as a dye for their color.
It was the Wampanoag Indians of Cape Cod, Massachusetts who introduced the berries to the pilgrims. Because the pilgrims had difficulty pronouncing the Indian name for the berry which was sassamanesh, they noticed the blossoms on the vine resembled a crane, so they called them crane berries. Later, the name became cranberry.
Pilgrim women used the berries to make sauces, relishes, tarts, stews and brews, although it took several hundred years before Massachusetts farmers began what is known as cranberry cultivation.
We do not have a record of Jews attending, so while turkey, duck, goose and venison, domesticated, are all kosher, the wild versions are not.
In Upstate Goshen, New York, there is even a company called Musicon Farm which breeds fallow deer, provides music in their barns and videotapes each deer’s life. It was the first farm to produce commercial glatt kosher venison.
So, a Jew keeping kosher, wandering into Plymouth in 1621 would not have gone hungry (discounting the fact that a shochet, or specially trained slaughterer, was not present to kill the animals). He or she most certainly would have felt at home with the Thanksgiving parts.
Sybil Kaplan is a Jerusalem-based journalist, lecturer, book reviewer, food writer and author (Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel) and author/contributor to nine cookbooks. She leads walks in English in Mahaneh Yehudah, the Jewish produce market.