Word of the Day / Hag Hahodaya: Thanks for the Turkey

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Happy Hag Hahodaya! That’s the Hebrew name for Thanksgiving and it means, fittingly enough, “holiday of gratitude.”

The funny thing about the Hebrew word for giving thanks is that it sounds a lot like the Hebrew name for the turkey.

“O give thanks [hodu] unto the Lord, for He is good,” reads Psalms 136:1, in a verse that also appears in the daily liturgy.

But as a noun, Hodu (HO-du) means India, and tarnegol hodu (literally “Indian chicken”) is a turkey, even though the bird is native to the Americas and did not come from either Turkey or India.

Like the gratitude kind of hodu, the country kind of Hodu can also be found in the Bible, in the first verse of the Book of Esther: “Now it came to pass in the days of Ahaseurus – this is Ahaseurus who reigned, from India [Hodu] even unto Ethiopia, over a hundred and seven and twenty provinces.”

The late Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson is said to have argued that the names of different countries are indications of their national character and that India’s name, with its similarity to the words for “gratitude” and the word hod, meaning “glory” or “splendor,” demonstrates the positive attributes of India.

More often, the linguistic similarity has been the source of insider Jewish jokes, as with the so-called “Tractate Thanksgiving,” a talmudic parody by Rick Dinitz. It begins with a deliberate mistranslation of the verse from Psalms, so that what’s good becomes eating turkey for the Lord rather than giving thanks to him.

Borrowing from the four species that Jews traditionally shake on the holiday of Sukkot, the fake tractate states (brackets in the original):

“They take the arba minim [four kinds] together -- turkey, cranberry, corn and squash -- and wave them east, south, west, north, up and down.

“Rabbi Yose says: When [does this apply]? When everyone in the congregation has a good sense of humor.

“Rabbi Tarfon says: When everyone in the congregation is a good juggler.”

One thing we can be thankful for this Thanksgiving is that, whether or not you find the parody amusing, having a sense of humor about Judaism is one tradition that’s alive and well -- even if the tarnegol hodu isn’t exactly whispering the prayers of gratitude that befit its name.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Thanksgiving pardon at the White House: Now, this is one turkey who can give thanks.Credit: Reuters
Hanukkah turkeyCredit: Dreamstime

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