Nov 262014
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Everyone knows that the American calendar dedicates a time explicitly for gratitude: Thanksgiving. But did you know that the practice of thankfulness is also embedded in the Jewish tradition?

With the approach of the Thanksgiving holiday, it seems fitting to investigate these roots further. Dr. David Pelcovitz, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, explores them in his ELI talk, “Jewish Perspectives on Happiness.” He begins with the following question:

“How does the secular view of happiness – which is tied etymologically to words like ‘hapless,’ ‘happenstance,’ and ‘haphazard,’ hinting that if you’re lucky enough to have money, if you’re fortunate enough to be living a life where everything falls your way, you’ll be happy, but otherwise maybe not – differ from the Jewish word for happiness, ‘simcha’?”

It turns out that some tie the Hebrew word ‘simcha’ (happiness) to putting two words together, ‘sham’ and ‘moach’: “where your head is at.” As Dr. Pelcovitz explains, “If your head is in a place of meaning, happiness will ensue.”

This Jewish concept of meaning-making rather than luck as the key to happiness may make intuitive sense. In fact, we learn in this talk that many principles deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition as to how to create meaning and happiness are also findings in the more recent study of positive psychology. For instance, the very word for being Jewish, Yehudi, means to thank or to express gratitude. This centrality of gratitude in Judaism is backed up by research in positive psychology demonstrating that gratitude is tied not only to happiness, but also to health.

While you watch Dr. Pelcovitz’s ELI talk here, think about: What matters most in your life, and how do you reflect upon and express your gratitude for it? What could you do to ritualize the practice of gratitude in your life – on Thanksgiving, and all year round?

If you find the video meaningful and inspirational, we suggest you share it with your loved ones — as a way of expressing your gratitude for them, of course. You might find that gratitude is contagious! Just like inspired Jewish ideas.

Learn more about ELI talks: Inspired Jewish Ideas at