26 November 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Nov 27

Dear Friends,

There’s a great accidental pun that occurs for American Jews who celebrate Thanksgiving (which is today), centred around Psalm 136, which many will cite as a double entendre: hodu l’adonai ki tov. It can be translated (as it usually is) as: ‘Give thanks to God, for [God is] good.’ But it can also be read as ‘Turkey for God for it is good.’ To that rare subset of people who find this funny– it is hilarious.

The reason this happens is because of yet another misunderstanding – about the bird which we call turkey. When European colonisers encountered turkey in the ‘New World’ they didn’t know what it was, and believed that it was the same as the bird which they knew as a ‘Turkish Chicken’ (actually a guinea fowl). However, in Hebrew the bird (Meleagris gallopavo) was called ‘hodu‘ – this time not a reference to Turkey (which guinea fowl weren’t from, but rather from Africa but reached Europe via Portuguese traders and North African ports), but instead to India.

In Hebrew, India is called Hodu – and Hebrew inherited the bias of Russian, French, Polish and Yiddish who call the bird which English calls ‘turkey’, ‘india’ instead. This came from a similar misunderstanding (that the Caribbean was the ‘West Indies’ and the people the same as those in the Indian subcontinent). Perhaps most amusing is that in Turkey, turkey (bird) is called ‘hindi’ (India).

The result of all this avian confusion is that we get the amusing fact of ‘hodu’ in Hebrew meaning three things: ‘Give thanks’, ‘India (country)’, and ‘turkey’ (bird). For Hebrew-literate American Jews, the refrain of Psalm 136 is thus a wonderful pun; giving thanks and turkey are related not just by American custom but by Hebrew grammar (however dubious the origins).

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or don’t (I don’t)– we are all due to remember the importance of gratitude, and of giving thanks. Perhaps this jumbled history of birds, countries and verbs can serve as a mnemonic– reminding us to make each day one in which we find ways to give thanks– for it is good.

Shabbat Shalom,
R. Adam
PS. for more background on this, see here

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