I take Thanksgiving seriously—not only seriously, but religiously. 1st of all, hakarat hatov, giving thanks is a prime Jewish principle. And 2nd, we must be grateful for American and all it has done for the Jewish people. Where would be, how many more Jews would have perished from pogroms and Hitler’s ovens if not for America? Some rabbis have taken it so far as to issue halachic rulings on the celebration of Thanksgiving. Let me share some of them with you:
- A turkey may be roasted, grilled fried, or cooked in any manner V’chol hamarbeh harey zeh m’shubach (whoever embellishes it is to be praised) as we say in the
- One who eats packaged cold cut turkey has fulfilled his obligation b’di-avad (minimally) and there or those who say you can fulfill your obligation with turkey salami.
- Women are exempt from watching football as it’s considered a Mitzvat asey shehazman grama (a positive time dependent mitzvah), but they are obligated in watching the Macy’s Day parade as they too are involved in the parade.
- One who does not tell over the story of the Pilgrims arrival in Plymouth Rock during the Thanksgiving meal has not fulfilled his obligation of the day.
- Every participant of the meal should see themselves as if they had left England. It is customary to act out the interaction between the pilgrims and the Indians. Pilgrim hats are not absolutely necessary, but whoever is stringent in this matter is to be blessed.
- Everyone must express thankfulness for at least 2 things but no more than 4 as being thankful for too many things is considered haughtiness.
- And finally, pies and cobblers should be the last food consumed on Thanksgiving and should be eaten before midnight.
The serious side of the religious nature of Thanksgiving can best be seen—not in the Shulchan Aruch or the Mishnah Berura—but from this week’s Torah portion and from a story about a dear friend and what happened to him last Shabbos.
In this week’s Torah portion we encounter Jacob who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father Isaac, as we saw in last week’s parsha, is very wealthy. Nowhere does the Torah inform us that he was really thankful for all his blessings. One day—without any warning—he’s chased out of his home and finds himself on the run for his life.
Even though he escapes his brother’s wrath, the Midrash tells us that his nephew Elifaz—Esav’s son—catches up with him. It wasn’t a familial embrace with Elifaz saying, “Hi Uncle Jake; funny meeting you here.” No, Elifaz held most important the mitzvah of honoring his father, and so Elifaz sought to kill Uncle Jake for his father’s sake.
Jacob thinking fast, resorts to some Talmudic reasoning and tells Elifaz, “If you take away everything from me, it’ll be like I’m dead because Awni nechshav kameyt (A poor person is thought of as dead). Now you can go back and tell your father you left Jacob dead.”
So as this parsha begins we see Jacob—formerly a rich boy—as a man on the run, completely bereft of anything but the shirt on his back. He doesn’t even have a backpack to use as a pillow when he sleeps and so he’s forced to gather a few hard stones instead.
Somehow Jacob manages to fall asleep and he has this amazing dream of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending. Gd speaks to Jacob in the dream confirming that he is the chosen one to whom Gd will give the Promised Land. Gd adds, “I am with you; I will guard you wherever you go; and I will return you to this land; for I will not forsake you.”
Jacob awakes and declares: Ma nora hamakom hazeh (How awesome is this place). People think of this as a prayer. You and I can call it a thanksgiving like the Modeh Ani prayer a Jew recites in the morning when he awakens thanking Gd he’s still alive. Jacob does attach a condition because he wants to keep on giving thanks. He says: “If Gd will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going; will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be a Gd to me, then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of Gd and whatever you will give me I shall repeatedly tithe to You.” in other words, Jacob vows to continue to be thankful.
If you’re into the Art of the Deal like President Trump tells us to be, this does not seem like a very good deal. Jacob could have held out for much more. “If you will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear,” is that all he asks for—a little bread and water and a shirt on his back?
Yes, this is the Thanksgiving lesson from today’s Torah portion. You can still give thanksgiving when your life is on the line and you’ve lost almost everything—but you’re still alive. What does it take to be thankful? Answer: very little! You can have your Thanksgiving even without cranberry sauce, even without any of the trimmings—in fact, even without the turkey. It’s enough to be thankful with just “a little bread to eat and clothes to wear.”
This was brought home to me this week by my dear friend of some 35 years, Rabbi Ira Grussgott of Congregation Agudath Achim, Freehold NJ. Last Shabbos he was walking home after shul somewhat upset. Services went a bit longer than usual and he had to cut short his sermon; there was no heat in shul (remember this was NJ in November); the coffee was cold and the herring too spicy. He was upset and he wasn’t feeling well. About half way home he had to sit down on a park bench as he realized he was probably having a heart attack.
His only hope was that since he left early because he wasn’t feeling well, the Cantor would find him as he walked home from shul. He did and his wife walking with him ran home to call 911 for an ambulance. They took Rabbi Grussgott to the hospital and when they saw how serious it was called for a helicopter to take him to a better facility. Here he was an orthodox rabbi riding in an ambulance and helicopter on Shabbos. He later told me he thought it was so cool. After some 72 hours, he was able to go home; his life saved. Baruch Hashem!
Rabbi Grussgott told me that a couple of days later as his wife Miriam was preparing for the whole family coming in for Thanksgiving dinner he heard her suddenly cry out, “O my Gd; I can’t believe I forgot the cranberry sauce! How can we have Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce?”
My friend—the rabbi of the family—then made a halachic ruling that it’s permissible to have a Thanksgiving meal without cranberry sauce. In fact, he said, “It’s not forbidden to celebrate even if one doesn’t have any of the special fixings. Even if one doesn’t have a turkey, one still has to be grateful, Baruch Hashem. Considering what I have just been through, I now understand that it only takes the bare minimum to be happy and thankful.”
In today’s Torah reading (Gen. 29:35), when mother Leah gives birth to her 4th son she says, hapaam odeh et Hashem (This time I will thank Gd), therefore she calls his name Yehuda (Judah) meaning, ‘thanks’.” We are Y’hudim or Jews because we are descendants of Juda. The root word for what it means to be a Jew is “thanks.” It just may be a coincidence, but in modern Hebrew hodu (thanks) also refers to “turkey.”
When Leah gives birth to Judah, since it’s her 4th son, she has no compelling reason to be so thankful. She’s just gives thanks for no reason with no conditions attached. That’s what it truly means to be thankful—not only on Thanksgiving, not only on Shabbos, but for each and every moment in our lives. May we all measure up to be called Jews—and that is, to be thankful and grateful. Amen!