Thanksgiving Day in the Torah

Question

Dear Rabbi, do you think the American holiday of Thanksgiving Day has its roots in Judaism? Thanks.

3 weeks

Answers

  1. Yes, I really think that Thanksgiving, especially celebrating it with a meal together with family and friends, is based on Judaism and Torah teachings.

    Giving thanks is a central and essential concept in Jewish philosophy and practice. When I wake up each morning the very first thing I do is say “Modeh Ani” — I give thanks for waking up to live another day. In one of the blessings of the main daily quiet standing prayer we say “We give thanks to You…” for our lives and everything that we have. In fact, Nachmanides (Spain and Jerusalem, 1194-1270) teaches that the main purpose of attending a synagogue is for people to gather together and give thanks to God.

    One of the offerings that was brought by individuals in the Temple was called a korban todah — a thanksgiving offering. The verse states, “If he shall offer it for a thanksgiving offering…” (Lev. 7:12). Certain people who survived a dangerous situation were deemed obliged to bring this thanksgiving offering to the Temple. But, anyone whose heart moved him to do so could also bring this same thanksgiving offering.

    But why does the Torah say to thank God specifically in this way? Why not we give charity or put up a plaque?

    Although most other offerings could be eaten for two days and one night, the thanksgiving offering was limited to one day and one night. In addition, the thanksgiving offering included 40 loaves of bread.

    The reason for the time limitation and vast amount of food involved was a “message” to the person who brought the thanksgiving offering. When he saw how much food there was, and how little time there was, he would be extra-motivated to invite his friends and family to participate in a festive meal. Naturally, the main topic of conversation would be the great deliverance he experienced, which was the reason for this meal, during which the host would recount the miraculous circumstances of his delivery. Specifically, he would speak words of Torah and publicly thank God.

    Although we have no Temple today and cannot bring the offerings mentioned in the Torah, we still continue to give thanks to God in a manner that is similar to how we gave thanks at the time when the Temple stood.

    Therefore, nowadays, and for the past 2,000 years since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, there is a widespread custom that one who escapes from a life-threatening danger makes a special meal of thanks to God. This meal of “thanksgiving” would include many family members and friends sitting around a food-laden table, singing many Psalms and songs of thanks together, and speaking words of Torah — especially expressing an idea relating to the reason for this celebratory and festive meal.

    Although, in theory, every day is a day for giving thanks to God, certain dates which commemorate days when Divine Providence was especially clear are celebrated with a festive, joyous and public meal in order to give thanks to God. This, in my opinion, is the “Jewish source” and spirit in which any “Thanksgiving Day” should be observed.

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team