I was raised in Canada, where most of the people I knew didn’t make a big deal of — or even celebrate — Thanksgiving (which, in Canada, falls on the second Monday in October). So when I moved to the States some 16 years ago, I was surprised to learn how Thanksgiving is so cherished by Americans. Yet, the first time I sat around a Thanksgiving table with friends and shared words of gratitude, I was struck by how familiar the holiday felt: To me, Thanksgiving seemed to be profoundly Jewish.
While we typically don’t think of Thanksgiving as a particularly Jewish day, it has the potential to be the most Jewish of all the secular holidays. With its focus on gathering as a community, giving thanks, and being mindful, Thanksgiving is infused with central Jewish values. We return to these themes again and again throughout Jewish practice, whether in prayer services, through the study of Torah, or as the basis for mitzvot. Thanksgiving invites us to stop in our tracks and embody these values — albeit in a different, more everyday context.
Whether we are invited to a meal or eat out with others, whether we are at home or serving the needy at a community center, Thanksgiving encourages us to form connections, find commonality, and experience the simple joy of breaking bread together. We welcome one another to the table — just like on Passover, when we welcome guests to the Seder. This is an essential Jewish tenet. Just as Abraham sat outside of his tent waiting for passersby, we offer hospitality with full hearts. Whether we are hosts or guests, we make each other feel at home.
Thanksgiving, is of course, about giving thanks. Judaism teaches that we are supposed to recite 100 blessings every day to build in a practice of cultivating gratitude. We can all find something to feel grateful for – even in challenging times. This holiday encourages us to tilt our point of view, even if for only one day, towards the gifts around us.
Intentionality is the purpose of the day. On ordinary days, we tend to rush through our meals, clear the table, and move on to the next activity. But Thanksgiving is a kind of secular Shabbat: as a national holiday, many of us have the day off. We slow down and are more mindful. And just like on Shabbat — when we don’t ask for things — Thanksgiving invites us to become aware of the gifts we already have. The feelings we cultivate by doing so can extend beyond the holiday itself, in the same way that the fulfillment of Shabbat can give us a sense of peace and wholeness lasting well into the week.
Thanksgiving offers us a chance to replenish ourselves with a sense of gratitude, well-being, and connection. And this is at the heart of Jewish life and practice.