The Hebrew root (shoresh) – ידה means ‘thank’. From this root comes הודָה (hodah) – ‘thanked’; תודָה – (todah) – ‘thanks’; מודִים (modim) – ‘we thank you’; להודות (l’hodot) – to thank (the infinitive); and we can’t leave out – חַג הַהודָיָה (chag hah-ho-dah-yah) – ‘Happy Thanksgiving’! Most Americans don’t realize that a Hebrew lesson is as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey, yams and pumpkin pie!  Why?  Well, the story goes something like this …

When the Mayflower dropped anchor off the shore of Cape Cod on Nov. 21, 1620, it carried 102 passengers with 37 of them being Pilgrims. Pilgrims sought to “purify” the Church of England, but when they could not, they decided to seek freedom of religion in the New World. Since the Pilgrims arrived in late in November, over half of them died in that first harsh winter. You would have thought that the “experiment in the New World” was a failure, but it was not.  The following spring, the colonists, assisted by friendly Indians, planted crops and in the fall of 1621, they held a the first Thanksgiving feast to thank God for the harvest.  The Indians were invited too and all enjoyed the good food.

How does Hebrew enter our Thanksgiving celebration? Well, the Pilgrims had an affinity for Hebrew! Gabriel Sivan writes in “The Bible and Civilization“, “No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.” Also, Puritan emigrants to the American colonies were instrumental in promoting Hebrew as part of the curriculum in the early American universities (mostly Ivy League

schools) like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and John’s Hopkins to name a few. Yale, Columbia and Dartmouth still have Hebrew inscriptions on their seals. Also, Bible studies from the Hebrew Bible were an integral part of the school’s curriculum. So popular was the Hebrew language in the late 17th and early 18th centuries that Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania taught courses in Hebrew – all the more remarkable because no university in England at the time offered such! 

Many of the Founding Fathers of America were products of these universities – for example, Thomas Jefferson attended William and Mary; James Madison, father of the Constitution, attended Princeton; Alexander Hamilton – King’s College. Thus, we can be sure that a majority of these political leaders were not only well acquainted with the contents of the Bible, but also had some working knowledge of Hebrew. 

So as you gather around the Thanksgiving table on Thursday with family and enjoy Turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, take time to Thank the Lord for the blessings of the past year as the Pilgrims did long ago.  And … you might want to take a look at a Hebrew book too!