In the autumn of 1621, a group of Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered to celebrate an event that would become a cornerstone of American tradition: the first Thanksgiving. Led by William Bradford, the Governor of the Plymouth Colony and leader of the Mayflower expedition, this historic feast not only marked a successful harvest but expressed a profound sense of thankfulness—a sentiment at the heart of Jewish tradition.
Bradford, a man of deep faith, often turned to the Bible for guidance and inspiration. He and his fellow Mayflower passengers perceived their voyage as a reenactment of the Biblical exodus, drawing a parallel between their departure from England, which they saw as a “Modern Day Egypt,” and their arrival in America, their “Modern Day Promised Land.” During the first Thanksgiving celebration, Bradford quoted from Psalm 107.
Psalm 107 is a psalm of thanksgiving and praise. It is known for its repeated refrain, “Let them praise the Lord for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind.” The psalm recounts various instances of distress and peril, including wandering in the desert, imprisonment, illness, and storms at sea, something that must have resonated deeply with the Pilgrims after their 66-day sea voyage to reach their new land, followed by God’s deliverance in response to the people’s cries for help. Each section of the psalm concludes with a call for those who have been saved to thank the Lord for His goodness and steadfast love. This structure serves to remind us of God’s constant presence and aid in times of trouble, reinforcing the theme of gratitude and praise for God’s mercy and redemption.
Gratitude is a value that is central to Jewish tradition. In fact, the Hebrew word for Jew, Yehudi, is derived from the word lehodot, to give thanks, illustrating how the concept of gratitude is deeply embedded within Jewish identity. This Psalm, attributed to King David, reminds us to not only feel thankful, but to express our thanks and appreciation openly and share it with others (verse 32).
This psalm also refers to the thanksgiving sacrifice (verse 22). This offering was a physical expression of gratitude to God brought by those who survived life-threatening situations. With the absence of the Temple, this ritual evolved into reciting the hagomel blessing, a blessing recited publicly after experiencing deliverance from danger. This again showcases the value of gratitude in Jewish tradition. In fact, according to the sages, in the Messianic era offerings of atonement will no longer be brought, but thanksgiving offerings will continue to be offered. This underscores the perpetual importance of expressing gratitude. The Jewish tradition of having a meal of thanksgiving, held after surviving great danger, is another manifestation of the deep-seated tradition of gratitude within Judaism. Psalm 107, in addition to Psalm 100, both of which express thanks to God, are often recited at these festive meals.
The Jewish value of publicly recognizing God’s blessings and salvation, and expressing gratitude, is reflected in the American celebration of Thanksgiving. As Americans gather to give thanks, it is important to remember the biblical heritage of showing gratitude. When celebrated properly, Thanksgiving becomes an opportunity not only to celebrate, but also to reflect on the many ways God guides and assists us, and to express our gratitude for everything that He does for us. This is what William Bradford did when he recited Psalm 107 at the very first Thanksgiving meal.
As we gather around our tables laden with turkey and pumpkin pie, let us remember this shared heritage. Let us reflect on this universal message of gratitude that transcends cultures and eras, and let us give thanks to God for guiding us toward a future of hope, peace, and continued blessings.