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10 Ideas for a Spiritual Thanksgiving

(Adapted and expanded from works of Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein)

Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein writes: “We do not often think of Thanksgiving as a Jewish holiday – it is an American holiday which we, as Americans observe. Thanksgiving in America was started by Christian pilgrims, and infused by many Christian values. In the media, we are surrounded by images of people sitting down to their Thanksgiving dinner and “saying grace,” celebrating the Christianity of Thanksgiving. There are always special program episodes on TV of all of our favorite shows, in which, for one episode a year, the people in the show actually express some human kindness. Homeless people are visited and fed, others in need are helped, and the heroes of our shows demonstrate that they can be “good people.”

It seems that we have not developed our own specifically Jewish traditions for Thanksgiving. Yet, Thanksgiving is an interpretation of our holiday, Sukkot, the fall festival designated to thank God for the bountiful harvest. As American Jews, we should revel in celebration of an American holiday, and not have any feelings of discomfort about it. Thanking God, after all, is a value we all share.”

  1. Begin with a blessing. A collection of Blessings for Your Thanksgiving Table are found at www.orami.org on the Holidays page.
  2. Light Candles: Light candles at your table. There is no blessing for Thanksgiving candles, which means you get to make your own!!! Start out with the way we start all our blessings, Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Ha’olam… (Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Guide of the Universe, who we thank for …) Then finish the sentence as you see fit. As you light your candles, invite others at your table to make their own blessings, using the same formula.
  3. Challah and Wine: Have challah (or delicious bread) and wine at your table, and say the blessings for them. Wine: Use the blessing formula above plus: Boray p’ri hagafen (who brings forth fruit of the vine). Challah: Use the blessing formula above plus: Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz (who brings forth bread from the earth).
  4. Shehecheyanu: Thanksgiving is a great time to say shehechayanu (the blessing for thanking God for keeping us alive to enjoy this moment). Use the formula plus: shehechayanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh (who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment).
  5. Share Symbols of Thankfulness: Ask everyone invited to your dinner to bring something which symbolizes what they are thankful for. After the blessings, before dinner, have everyone talk about what they brought and its significance. Be sure everyone knows to bring something, and has a chance to talk, including children.
  6. Light a Yahrzeit Candle to Remember Deceased Relatives: Make some time for remembering the people who are not with you, either because of distance, family obligations (or preferences) or death. Families change. The people sitting at your table all have other family members with whom they are not sitting (in-laws, cousins, parents and grandparents, children who are with former spouses, etc.) Talk about who else is not physically there. A moment of silence for people who have died, and are missed can be a great way of allowing people to remember. Have people talk about who they miss and special things about them from previous Thanksgivings. You can also light Yahrzeit candles for people who have died as a part of remembering.
  7. Do some random mitzvot (acts of lovingkindness): Collect and deliver food, household and personal supplies to people who need them. There are plenty of food drives at this time of year. Contribute food. Make a donation in honor of the people coming to your dinner (or alternatively, in honor of your hosts) to your congregation, the Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, Mazon (Jewish hunger organization) or a local shelter. Invite a single person, or people whose families are distant, to be your special guests. If you are a guest this year for the first time, donate what you would have spent hosting a dinner for others in honor of those you would have invited, or in honor of your hosts.
  8. Teach children about the connections between Thanksgiving and the Bible. Remember, for the Jewish community, Thanksgiving offers a special opportunity to be grateful not only for the bounties and comforts of our lives but especially for the religious freedom we have found in the United States of America. The Bible was very important in the Pilgrims’ lives. When they wanted to give thanks to God for helping them survive, they recalled the harvest festival (Sukkot) they had read about in the Bible (Deuteronomy 16:13-17). They used the Sukkot celebration as their model. In 1702, author Cotton Mather referred to the Plymouth colony as “this little Israel.” He compared William Bradford, Plymouth’s second governor, to “Moses, who led his people out of the wilderness.” More at URJ’s Thanksgiving page.
  9. Read Jewish Perspectives on Thanksgiving Day. Kevin Proffitt writes: “The Pilgrims of Plymouth observed the first American Thanksgiving in 1621, when Governor William Bradford proclaimed a special day of thanks for the colony’s first harvest. To celebrate, the Pilgrims prepared a feast that they shared with their Native American neighbors. Some time later, in the eighteenth century, many of the thirteen colonies observed days of prayer and gratitude during the harvest season. But it was not until 1777 that they agreed to observe a common day of thanksgiving.” Read more
  10. Review Jewish Values about Hunger and Poverty. As we sit down with our family and friends at the Thanksgiving table and offer thanks for the bounty that is ours, we often forget about the thousands of people in America, Canada and around the world who do not share our prosperity. While we gorge ourselves on turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie, others do not even have the bare necessities to sustain themselves and their families. Jewish tradition teaches us that we are required to feed the hungry. Instead of celebrating this holiday in our own insular family units, Thanksgiving is a perfect time to reach out to the community and serve those who are most in need. Print out these Jewish texts, read them at your table, and then discuss how you can make a difference in the world. More ideas at www.rac.org.

If there is among you a poor person, one of your kin, in any of your towns within your land which God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against them, but you shall open your hand to them, and lend them sufficient for their needs, whatever they may be. –Deuteronomy 15:7-8 

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh. (Isaiah 58:7-8)
When you are asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and you answer: “I fed the hungry,” you will be told: “This is the gate of the Eternal, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.
(Midrash Psalms 118:17) 

When you give food to a hungry person, give your best and sweetest food. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Mizbayach 7:11) 

Hunger is isolating; it may not and cannot be experienced vicariously. He who never felt hunger can never know its real effects, both tangible and intangible. Hunger defies imagination; it even defies memory. Hunger is felt only in the present. (Elie Wiesel)

How will you make your Thanksgiving Spiritual? 

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