First Word: “Thanks—Modeh”
I recall learning Hebrew at the breakfast table from my polyglot father, who spoke 10 languages, saying “todah” (thanks) or “todah rabbah” (thank you very much) as occasion demanded—which in England it did a lot. The formality of prayerful English kept hidden from me the extent to which giving thanks (thanksgiving) fills our liturgy, literally from the very first word.
In almost every siddur (Sim Shalom for Weekdays,1) we find the words “Modeh ani lefanekha” presented as the first words to be said upon awakening. Too often this is translated as “I gratefully acknowledge before You,” or something similar. The problem is that I’m not sure what it really means “to acknowledge”—and certainly not at 6:15 a.m.—or whatever moment I first wake up. In fact, the participle verb modeh (modah in feminine form) has the same Hebrew root as todah. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers the simple translation, “I thank You” (The Koren Sacks Siddur, 2), which is clear and immediate. Our tradition invites us to open each day with a thank-you—not a bad reflection for this week in which giving thanks is celebrated and ritualized throughout the United States.
The two most basic elements of the liturgy have thanks-giving embedded in the core text. The ‘Amidah always ends with a prayer for peace (shalom), preceded by “Modim anachnu lakh” (Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, 41), which should, I suggest, simply be translated as “We give thanks to You.” In birkat hamazon (Blessing after Meals), we find “Ve’al hakol . . . anachnu modim lakh” (For all of this . . . we give thanks to You” (232).
How might a Jewish perspective be brought to bear upon Thanksgiving? Certainly by being conscious of the pervasive presence of “thanks” in our sacred texts and liturgy; by focusing on the texts I have noted here. We should be conscious of an increasing body of scientific research confirming the connection between gratitude and a happy or fulfilled life. I suggest also a prayer composed in rabbinic Hebrew by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
Psalm 100, Mizmor Le-Todah (A Psalm of Thanks), has been connected with Thanksgiving by many faith communities, and in Jewish liturgy is traditionally recited almost every day. Reflections on gratitude might be shared among those gathered, along with any of the texts mentioned above, or from the following resources:
The Rabbinical Assembly offers these resources for Thanksgiving (and the confluence with Hanukkah)
An interesting historical note is offered by Professor Moshe Sokolow of Yeshiva University.
Read an intriguing essay by journalist Edmund Rodman.
There are many musical settings of Psalm 100 in Hebrew and English:
A presentation by the Sephardic Hazzan Tzion Falah
A contemporary Israeli version by Sagiv Cohen
“Old Hundredth” is the version arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams and sung by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge
Modeh An in Jerusalem with Rick Recht and Rabbi Micah Greenstein
As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at email@example.com.