Who is rich? The one who is happy with what (s)he has.
– Ben Zoma, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Ancestors)
Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday because it’s American and completely kosher for Jews to celebrate. In fact, some believe the holiday was derived from the harvest festival of sukkot. There are many themes that we can build on Jewishly in celebration of the holiday: Pilgrims, immigrants, religious liberty, tzeddakah and, of course, food and gratitude.
Jews definitely know food. Building off of the Passover model, this amazing Thanksgiving Haggaddah, tells the story of the pilgrims, breaks down the meal as if it is a Seder plate and even poses four questions:
- Why is this holiday of Thanksgiving different for us from other holidays that we celebrate as American Jews?
- What are the things we are thankful this year?
- How can we help others who are in need during this season?
- Why do we eat special foods for Thanksgiving?
Food opens up many avenues to discuss alternative ways of eating, such as Kashrut and Vegetarianism, and why people chose to eat differently.
Jews are not strangers to hunger. Even biblically, the Israelites starved in the desert and begged for food. Manna, a mysterious, divine food, sustained them. (Along with quails!) Discuss: What would it mean to never need food? Where does your food come from?
Being grateful is an important part of Judaism. Yehudim (Jews), from the name Yehuda or Judah, means grateful to G-d. While the word for thank you in Hebrew is todah, The Hebrew term for gratitude is hikarat hatov, which means, literally, “recognizing the good.” This article from aish reveals Judaic sources of gratitude, and shares some excellent stories you can impart around your thanksgiving table. A Jewish video project even put out a 15 minute animation and a study guide to walk through some Jewish ideas of gratitude. (Warning: it gets into some adult content.)
Blessing (Bracha) and Prayers (tefillah) are often ways of expressing thankfulness. Blessings are usually in praise of G-d, but for those who are more comfortable with the humanistic approach, simply replace thanks to G-d with thanks to the universe or thanks to the unknown. Instead of saying God you can also say Adonai, which frames the divine more Jewishly. Discuss: Why say a blessing?
Traditionally, after every meal where bread is broken, Jews say the birkat hamazon and reference the time the people received Manna in the desert. Birkat is sometimes called bensching. If you’ve never heard the post-meal praise before, watch this video that walks you through the entire reform version of the birkat or check out this camp version. The birkat is an epic chant of gratitude post-feast, and is one of the most important prayers in Judaism (though never recited in synagogue).
Modeh Ani is a prayer we say when we wake up in the morning, which essentially says, “I’m so thankful I’m alive!” Here’s the prayer and its origins. It is a reminder of the preciousness of life, and the gratitude we have for being alive: “I Greatfully Thank You, living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion – abundant is your faithfulness!” Hebrew for Christians has a great printable study card. Here is A cute campy version of the song on youtube.