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Why Thankfulness And Gratitude Are Jewish Emotions

For most of my life, I didn’t consider gratitude a particularly Jewish emotion. Quite the contrary.

I grew up a secular Jew, my cultural knowledge filtered through Neil Simon and Philip Roth more than the Talmud or rabbis. So to me, anxiety, guilt, resentment, constant nervousness about diseases like sciatica and bursitis — those were Jewish emotions.

But gratitude? Not so much.

We were, after all, the descendants of the Hebrews who wandered the desert for 40 years, whining about the lack of amenities.

As an adult, I came to value gratitude not because of my Jewish heritage but because I read a slew of positive psychology books, the popular genre that teaches you to calmly reason with your irrational inner grouch.

I became so enamored of gratitude, I made it the topic of my latest book, “Thanks a Thousand.” In the book, I embark on a quest to thank every single person who had a role (even a tiny one) in making my morning cup of coffee possible. I thank the barista, the farmer, the truck driver who transported the coffee beans, the folks who built the road for the truck, the people who painted yellow lines on the road so that the truck didn’t crash. In short, a whole lot of people.

And here’s an interesting twist: In researching the book, I came to realize gratitude is actually quite Jewish, after all. Or at least you can build a case that it is. And when I interviewed some rabbis, they did just that. Of course, rabbis are masters at taking any positive trait and claiming it’s central to Judaism. But they did present some compelling evidence.

One rabbi pointed out that the very word “Jew” comes from the tribe of Judah, and Judah’s name is derived from Yehudah, which means “thanksgiving.” Judah’s mom, Leah, gave him that name, since she wanted to express her thanks to God. (With her previous boys she’d focused instead on how their births might help her win the love of her husband, Jacob).

“To be Jewish is to be thankful,” said Josh Franklin, rabbi of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons.

For further evidence, you could point to the raft of thankfulness prayers observant Jews are required to say in everyday life.

The first words of the first morning prayer translate to “I thank you.” Other thanksgiving prayers are delightfully, if oddly, specific.

There’s a prayer of thanks you can say when you see someone who is nearsighted.

There’s a prayer of thanks for when food resembles its ingredients, and another when it doesn’t.

There’s even a prayer of thankfulness for the concept of thankfulness. Very meta.

Perhaps the most famous Jewish anecdote about gratitude is the tale of the Jewish farmer in the shtetl:

The farmer goes to the rabbi and complains that his house is too small. The man can’t stand all the noise of his screaming kids and his wife’s clinking of pots and pans.

The rabbi tells the man to bring chickens to live in the house with him.

The man is baffled, but he does it. The next day, the man goes back to the rabbi to complain that the situation has only deteriorated. The rabbi tells him to bring a goat under his roof. Then a cow.

The man reports that things are getting worse and worse.

Finally, the rabbi tells the man to return all the animals to the yard. The man does so.

The next day, the man returns to the rabbi to report that life is great. He’s happy, relaxed and had the best night’s sleep.

The point of the story, of course, is that we should focus on the things we have instead of those things we want. And don’t forget, things could always get worse.

As it says in Pirke Avot, the ancient collection of Jewish wisdom: “Who is rich? Those who rejoice in their own portion.”

I have mixed feelings about the farmer story. On the one hand, I appreciate the dangers of what psychologists call the “deficit mindset.” This is the worldview that says “I will only be happy when X happens.” Of course, when you get X, it will likely be replaced by Y, which will be replaced by Z. The hedonic treadmill is relentless.

On the other hand, I worry that the story encourages complacency and acceptance of terrible circumstances that sometimes can be changed. Maybe the man could have found a third way. Maybe the rabbi should have told the farmer to start an Uber for Plows so that he could make enough money to buy a bigger, quieter house.

It’s a tricky balance: trying to be grateful while not blindly accepting the status quo.

The final big theme I noticed in Jewish gratitude is the importance of realizing you didn’t do everything yourself. God did it. You have to humbly thank the Lord.

As it says in Deuteronomy, “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.… Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’”

I like the idea that you shouldn’t take credit for all your accomplishments. But for me, a lifelong agnostic, the God-is-responsible part doesn’t resonate.

Instead, I like to focus on all the people who helped make something possible. This was one of the big themes in my coffee project. My quest drove home just how many dozens of other humans make my coffee possible, from the pest control worker at the coffee warehouse to the miners in Chile who got the copper for the wiring in the coffee roasters.

Barack Obama once gave a speech telling business owners, “You didn’t build this yourself,” which was controversial, since it questioned America’s love of individual achievement. Perhaps he put it indelicately, but I agree with the gist.

I told my thoughts to a rabbi who directed me to this passage by the second-century scholar Simeon Ben Zoma. Ben Zoma wrote: “How much labor must Adam have expended before he obtained a garment to wear! He sheared and washed the wool, combed and spun it, wove, and after that he obtained a garment to wear. By contrast, I get up in the morning and find all this prepared for me. All artisans attend and come to the door of my house, and I get up and find all these things before me.”

So there you go. Ben Zoma scooped me by 1,900 years.

A.J. Jacobs is the author of the forthcoming [book]( “Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.”

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