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What's Jewish About Thanksgiving?

Out of all the different American holidays, I enjoy Thanksgiving the most. This is not because I love turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, etc. Rather, this is because the true essence of Thanksgiving (which has nothing to do with football) is incredibly Jewish. As a matter of fact, the meaning of the word “Jew” – “Yehudi” stems from the concept of giving thanks. The Torah tells us in last week’s parasha that when Leah gave birth to her fourth son, Yehudah, she said, "This time I will give thanks to G-d," (Bereishis 29:35). She therefore called him Yehuda from the Hebrew hoda’ah-giving thanks.

The reason we are known as Jews is because most of us are descended from Judah. Of the 12 children who came from Jacob, 10 of the tribes of Israel were lost, scattered to unknown destinations and no longer identifiable by their heritage. Those who remained, other than the Kohanim and Leviim, either stemmed from the large tribe of Judah or the much smaller one of Benjamin. Since the odds are very great that the modern day descendents of Jacob are in the majority from Judah, we are called Jews.

Biblically, names are far more than just a label. They invest an object or person with a quality that defines their very essence and purpose for being. When Leah called her son Judah, she hoped that the soul of this child, as well as those who would descend from him, would be the paradigm of the particular value that motivated her choice of name.

What is the best way to define a Jew? Not by our nose, as anti-Semites would have it, but by our name. Jews are the people who gave to the world not only the awareness of G-d, but also the concept of gratitude.

Aldous Huxley noted a profound truth when he wrote that, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” Jewish life actively fights against this. Every single day the first words out of our mouths upon awakening are, "I give thanks before You, eternal King, for having restored to me my soul." Every single day there are one hundred blessings to be recited, one hundred times to say thank you. One hundred times we emphasize not what we are missing, but rather, we are grateful for what we have.

If someone lacks this trait of thankfulness, the Talmud boldly says there is grave suspicion that this person may in fact not be a Jew!

Although the First Amendment prevents Congress from establishing a religion or prohibiting its free exercise, historically, Presidents and Congress have always recognized certain sacred practices and beliefs. Therefore, throughout American history, Presidents have offered non-sectarian prayers for the victory of the military and in the wake of catastrophes.

Following a resolution of Congress, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, the 26th of November, 1789 a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Check out the rest of President Washington’s incredibly Jewish sounding Thanksgiving Proclamation.