While Thanksgiving is most certainly an American festival of gratitude, its founders prominently articulated its religious underpinnings, which ultimately traces to a source in Judaism. Two well-known Manhattan synagogues created and held Thanksgiving ceremonies which took place on Thanksgiving morning, adding a decidedly religious tone to a day that today is usually bereft of the spiritual element and is most often associated with hefty eating, football and shopping.

On Thursday, November 21, 1940, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun featured a “Thanksgiving Service” at 11:00 AM in its sanctuary. The service weaved a tapestry of liturgical music, American patriotism and speeches. After the cantor and the choir led Mah Tovu, the congregation rose as the colors were presented to the synagogue’s president, who then read President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. Charles Poletti, Lieutenant Governor of the State of New York delivered a Thanksgiving Address to the assembled and the synagogue’s rabbi, Joseph H. Lookstein, offered a “Thanksgiving Prayer.” Rabbi Lookstein’s prayer offered gratitude to God for the Creation of the World, for man’s dignity and wisdom and for all of humankind to thrive. The final paragraph addressed the host nation: “We pray sincerely for America and the ideals of democracy and freedom that are here enshrined. May she be strong to withstand all the currents that assail her and all the forces of evil that would invade her sacred precincts. A tower of light to her own citizenry, may she cast a steady beam and light up all the dark areas of the world and show to a perplexed and straying humanity the path of freedom, of life and of peace.”

Five years later, a “Service for Thanksgiving Day” took place at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue-Congregation Shearith Israel, also in New York City. This service included a standard prayer for the U.S. government and included a greater sampling of Psalms, including verses from the Psalms known as “Hallel” and the “Psalm of Praise” (Psalm 100).

Whether a person’s Thanksgiving includes Jewish liturgy or not, showing gratitude for our bounty is a message all can appreciate. “Judaism,” etymologically related to Biblical name “Judah,” denotes gratitude, and has taught “thanksgiving” to humanity for millennia.

Copyright © 2023 NJOP. All rights reserved.