For the Sake of Heaven
A discourse on language and food, celebration and birds
We have a refrain in the Psalms, Hodu L’Adonai Ki Tov (Psalm 118), Give thanks to God for God is good, followed by Ki L’Olam Chasdo, For God’s mercy is everlasting. This may be the best known refrain from our beloved song/poems, known to the Greeks as the Songs (Psalms from Psalmoi = songs), known to us as Praises (Tehillim).
Hodu in that refrain is an imperative built from a verb form: Give thanks or be thankful, related to the Hebrew todah, for thank you. Hodu is the imperative, plural – give thanks [all of you], for God is good.
Hodu is also the Hebrew for turkey, the bird.
It’s also the Hebrew not for the country Turkey, but for India. This is common in many other languages. For example, in French turkey the bird is dinde (f), dindon (m), which is derived from d’Inde, from India. There must have been some sense that turkey, the bird, came from India.
But the bird we call a turkey is native to America. Somehow it must have been associated with the country Turkey, at least with the eastern Mediterranean.
The wild bird we call a turkey is not the only bird called a turkey. Since the mid sixteenth century, turkey is also the name given to the guinea-fowl. The guinea-fowl is native to Africa, and was brought to Europe through – Turkey, by traders known as turkey-merchants.
I come from a long line of turkey-merchants, by the way, to call me a turkey-merchant is no insult, it is a matter of pride. Don’t call me a turkey either, unless you know the history of the word.
The English thought the bird came from Turkey, nearly everybody else in the world associated the bird with India. Even in Turkey, they call the bird hindi, coming from Hindistan, Turkish for India. In Yiddish, a turkey is a hendika hen, Indian hen, and in modern Hebrew tarnagol hodu, Indian chicken.
When the Europeans came to America, they saw the similarity between the American bird and the guinea-fowl that had been imported from Turkey, so they called the American bird turkey as well.
Why was the bird associated with India? It may be because it is also indigenous to Mexico, which was known as the Spanish Indies or the New Indies. Maybe the languages associated the bird with the New India, which is in Latin America.
This gets better. There is another, minority theory, about the origin of the word turkey for that goofy looking bird. In some circles, the word is credited to Luis de Torres, who was a Jew (converted, that is, because he had to) the interpreter for Christopher Columbus. Luis de Torres had a background in Biblical Hebrew. He saw the bird and called it a tooki, which was corrupted into turkey. A tooki is Hebrew for a parrot, which no doubt is the origin of all those great Jewish parrot jokes.
Of course, the whole Thanksgiving feast concept is based on a Biblical model, see Deuteronomy 26: 1-3. When you have come into the land, you shall take the first fruits of the ground which you harvest and give thanks.
Hodu L’Adonai Ki Tov
Give thanks to God, for God is good, or as we now know:
[Eating] turkey [for the sake of] God