As I write this column, we are still in the throes of unusually hot weather, but our calendars tell us that fall is in the air and Thanksgiving is almost upon us. Although it is a secular holiday, it is one that most Jewish families celebrate as much as our Jewish ones, often even more. We have plenty of opportunities to “give thanks” as Jewish people. At Passover we are thankful that Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt. At Chanukah we celebrate our thankfulness that the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. At Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we atone for our sins, ask for forgiveness and give thanks to God for keeping us and our families healthy and safe this past year and pray for those things for the coming year. On a weekly basis many of us express our thankfulness on Shabbat for so many things, such as being free to practice our religion.
In November we express our thanks in a more secular way, along with our friends and family members of different faiths. People of all religions and beliefs join together in their appreciation of things such as good health, family and friends, financial stability, our homes and the food we are able to put on our table, our professional and extracurricular lives and all of the many blessings we have. There is certainly nothing wrong with that; in fact, Thanksgiving is one of our family’s favorite holidays, and we have many Thanksgiving traditions that we enjoy. But there are some easy ways to combine the secular holiday of Thanksgiving with Jewish spirituality and traditions.
Most Jewish holidays include two important components: food and family and/or friends. What a coincidence – those two things are the cornerstone of Thanksgiving! As we all get older, spending time with loved ones, especially my family, feels even more important than it was before. I am starting to be more cognizant that our parents are getting older and won’t be with us forever and even that our kids are growing up so fast and will be leaving for college sooner than we realize. Even though they will come home, it won’t be the same once they are independent adults. Spending quality time with my family is something that is very important to me and time is a rare commodity in a busy family.
Even though we celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur together as a family, attending services, enjoying nice meals and not going to school, work or activities, the rest of the world does not stop for our Jewish holidays. Chanukah will be similar – this year it is early, and we will celebrate and follow all of our many traditions, but we will be competing with school, work and activities. In contrast, Thanksgiving weekend is a wonderful time to celebrate and spend time together, as there is no school, work or other activity to vie for our time.
One way that we have incorporated Jewish tradition into Thanksgiving is to light the holiday candles before the festive meal, to say the blessings over the wine and bread and to recite the Birkot Ha Mazon after our meal. Additionally, being at the table with those you care about is a perfect time to recite the Shehechiyanu prayer. Something we have not tried before, but I’d like to try this year, is to have each member of our family look up (either online or in a Jewish prayer book) a Jewish prayer about being thankful that is personally meaningful.
Another important way that we can make Thanksgiving more Jewish is to incorporate tzedakah into our Thanksgiving celebration. As we all know, tzedakah is a cornerstone of Judaism. Helping others in need by donating food to a food pantry, serving at a soup kitchen or adopting a family at Thanksgiving is a perfect way to make our Thanksgiving holidays both more meaningful and Jewish.
Our family wants to wish all of our readers a very happy Thanksgiving. One thing that we are most thankful for is this wonderful community in which we live our lives!