On today’s holiday of Thanksgiving in America it’s worth taking a look at the origins of the practice of giving thanks, and to see what the Jewish influence is in creating the holiday. It’s true that the Pilgrims in America looked to the Bible for their inspirations, and may very well be true that they based it on Biblical practices, such as Sukkot, bringing Bikkurim, bring a Thanksgiving offering ((קרבן תודה to the Temple. But more than all of this, the essence of the Jewish people, and the very name that we are known by “Jews” – “Yehudim” in Hebrew – is giving thanks. And the source of it is in the Torah portion that we read this Shabbat (ויצא).
In the Parsha, Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, each of them bringing a handmaid, Zilpah and Bilhah. Leah gets pregnant and gives birth right away, to one boy after another: Reuven, Shimon, Levy, Yehuda. Leah knew that Jacob was destined to have twelve sons, so that the equal share of all four Mothers (wives and handmaids) was three apiece. When she had her fourth son, Leah exclaimed on her good fortune: “This time I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Yehuda.” (Bereishit 29:35) The name Yehuda comes from the word “Hoda’a”, which means giving thanks.
The Rabbis of the Talmud saw this thanksgiving of Leah as an extraordinary act: (Brachot Bavli 7b) “Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: From the day that the Holy One Blessed be He, created His world there was no one that thanked the Holy One Blessed be He, until Leah came and thanked Him. For it is said: “This time will I thank the Lord.” The Midrash furthers the thought, and shows how her act lasted for generations: “Leah grasped the tool of giving thanks, and her descendants excelled in giving thanks. Yehuda: “He recognized the truth and said ‘she is right’” (Bereishit 38:26) David: “Give thanks to the L-rd for He is good…” (Tehilim 136:1) Daniel: “To You, O G-d of my forefathers, I give thanks and praise,…”
Because Yehuda was able to admit the truth even when it was very embarrassing, his brothers were able to praise him, and the nation of Israel would eventually become known by his name. (Targum Yonatan, Bereishit 49:8) We see that from the time of Megilat Esther, the nation became known as “Yehudim” (which transformed to Jew in English) which means “those who give thanks”. So we see that the very essence of the name of Jewish people comes from our rich heritage of giving thanks.