In 1621, colonists at Plymouth held a feast, expressing their gratitude to God for a good harvest. This is widely understood to be the original Thanksgiving celebration—but Moshe Sokolow points to an even earlier celebration and its roots in distinctly Jewish practices. (2011)
Fleeing from persecution in England, the pilgrim passengers on the Mayflower brought along their principal source of religious inspiration and comfort: the Bible. One particular edition of the Bible (published in 1618) is known to have been in the possession of none other than William Bradford, who would later serve as governor of the Plymouth colony. This edition was supplemented by the Annotations of a Puritan scholar named Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622).
Shortly after their landfall in November 1620, Bradford led the new arrivals in thanking God for the safe journey that brought them to America by reciting verses from Psalm 107. Curiously, Ainsworth’s annotations to verse 32 of that psalm [are] essentially [from] an English version of Maimonides’ comprehensive legal code, the Mishneh Torah, which prescribes the four conditions under which birkat ha-gomel, the blessing after being spared from mortal danger (itself derived from Psalm 107), is to be publicly recited. . . .
Citing additional verses from the psalm, Bradford compared the pilgrims’ arrival in America to the Jews’ crossing of the Sinai desert, corresponding to “wayfaring men, when they are come to the inhabited land”—one of the four conditions requiring “confession.”
[In other words], the very first prayer the pilgrims recited immediately upon their arrival in the New World had its origins in a distinctly Jewish practice. . . . Even without turkey and cranberry sauce, this vestige of Jewish influence on the religious mores of the U.S. is worth our acknowledgment and contemplation—and, of course, our thanksgiving.