One mid-November day I was walking the halls of the Temple and I ran into a friend of mine. She wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. Then she said: “Oh wait a minute. I didn’t mean to offend you. Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?” I said: “Of course I do!” She laughed, a bit embarrassed, and then I wished her a Happy Thanksgiving too.
There are many ritual, historical and theological connections between Judaism and Thanksgiving. The Puritans strongly identified with the historical traditions and customs of the Israelites in the Bible. In their quest for religious freedom, they viewed their journey to America as exactly analogous to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. England was Egypt, the king was Pharoah, the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea and the Puritans were the Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land. In fact, most of the Puritans had Hebrew names and there was even a proposal to make Hebrew the language of the colonies!
On this holiday, we give thanks for all of the good in our lives. Saying “Thank You” is a primary Jewish value. When a Jew eats, he or she says: “Blessed are you God, for bringing bread from the earth.” To say a blessing over bread affirms that God played a role in creating the universe where the sun rises each day and the rain falls and makes the growth of food possible.
The Rabbis taught that we are to say 100 blessings a day. Saying so many blessings helps us realize that no matter how difficult life can be, we all have much good to celebrate such simply being alive, our health, our friends and our loved ones.
Since it may be hard to come up with 100 blessings, the Rabbis suggested a few. Upon seeing lightening, one may say: “Blessed are you God, who made the world.” When you see the ocean, you can say: “Blessed are you God, who made the great sea.” And upon seeing fruit trees in bloom, one may say: “Blessed are you God, who leaves nothing lacking in the world, who created good creatures and beautiful trees, for the benefit of all people.”
And what about the other 97 blessings? I might suggest that we offer the following words: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Blessed are you God,” and then insert whatever we have to be thankful for. And on Thanksgiving, we might speak this blessing: “Baruch Atah Adoni, Blessed are you God, who has given us the bounty of food and blessing of family.”