History of Thanksgiving
Before any halachic analysis can be done, it is necessary to place the observance of the holiday of Thanksgiving in America in the proper historical context. The first Thanksgiving day celebration was held in response to the survival by the pilgrims of the particularly harsh winter of 1622/3. Not only did the colonists themselves celebrate, but food was sufficiently plenty that even the Indians with whom the colonists were at peace were invited. This celebration took place on July 30, 1623 (in the middle of the summer). Similar such celebrations occurred throughout the New England area throughout the 1600's. (4) However, they were only local (rather than national or even regional) celebrations of Thanksgiving -- and only to mark the end of a particularly difficult winter -- until 1789. (5)
In 1789, Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey proposed in Congress a resolution urging President Washington to:
- Recommend to the people of the United States a day of public Thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of the Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness. (6)
After quite a debate, President Washington issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation, setting November 26, 1789 as Thanksgiving and a national holiday. Washington stated in his proclamation:
- Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us. (7)
- Notwithstanding the religious eloquence of Washington's words (and even perhaps because of their overtly religious theme (8)) Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday. From 1790 to 1863 there were no national celebrations of Thanksgiving. Indeed, while proclamations of thanks were issued by some presidents, all of the presidents for more than the next seventy years chose to ignore the day as a national holiday of thanksgiving. (9)
It was not until 1846, when the unity of the country was again in controversy because of the Missouri Compromise and the problems of slavery, that the celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday returned to the national agenda. From 1846 to 1863, Ms. Sara Joseph Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady Book (10) embarked on a campaign to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday during which workers would not be required to go to work. Her campaign culminated in President Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation of 1863 -- the first such proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday since 1789. Since 1863, Thanksgiving has been celebrated as a national holiday and a day of rest at the end of November, either the fourth or fifth Thursday of the month. (11)
יורה דעה קעח סעיף א
אין הולכין בחוקות העובדי כוכבים (ולא מדמין להם). (טור בשם הרמב"ם) ולא ילבש מלבוש המיוחד להם.א ב] <א> ולא יגדל ציצת ראשו כמו ציצת ראשם. ג] ולא יגלח מהצדדין ויניח השער באמצע. ד] ולא יגלחהשער מכנגד פניו מאוזן לאוזן <ב> ויניח הפרע. ה] <ג> ולא יבנה מקומות כבנין היכלות ב של עובדיכוכבים כדי שיכנסו בהם רבים, כמו שהם עושים. הגה: אלא יהא מובדל מהם במלבושיו ובשאר מעשיו (שם). ו] וכל זה אינו אסור אלא בדבר שנהגו בו העובדי כוכבים לשום פריצות, כגון שנהגו ללבוש ג מלבושים אדומים, והוא מלבוש שרים וכדומה לזה ממלבושי הפריצות, ז] או בדבר שנהגו למנהג ולחוק ואין טעם בדבר דאיכא למיחש ביה משום דרכי האמורי ושיש בו שמץ עבודת כוכבים מאבותיהם, דאבל דבר שנהגו לתועלת, כגון שדרכן שכל מי שהוא רופא מומחה יש לו מלבוש מיוחד שניכר בו שהוא רופא אומן, מותר ללובשו. וכן שעושין משום כבוד או טעם אחר, מותר (מהרי"ק שורש פ"ח). לכן אמרו: <ד> שורפין על המלכים ואין בו משום דרכי האמורי (ר"ן פ"ק דעבודת כוכבים).
ובדבר לעשות איזה שמחה בימי איד של הנכרים אם הוא מצד אמונתם, אם בכוונה מחמת שהוא יום אידאסור מדינא ואם בלא כוונה יש לאסור מצד מראית העין, וסעודת מצוה כמילה ופדה"ב יש לעשות אפילובימי איד שלהן, דאין לאסור בשביל מראית עין סעודה המחוייבת, אבל סעודת בר מצוה טוב לדחות על יוםאחר, ואף נישואין יש לקבוע לכתחלה על יום אחר. ויום ראשון משנה שלהם וכן טענקס גיווינג אין לאסורמדינא אבל בעלי נפש יש להם להחמיר.
On the question of celebrating any event on a holiday of Gentiles, if the holiday is based on religious beliefs [by the Gentiles], such celebrations are prohibited if deliberately scheduled on that day; even without intent, it is prohibited because of marit ayin (24) . . . The first day of year for them [January 1](25) and Thanksgiving is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [balai nephesh] should be strict.
. אם אסור מצד בחוקותיהם לא תלכו, להשתתף בסעודת יום ההודייה שעושים בארצות הברית
ובדבר השתתפות במי שמחשיבים יום ההודייה (טיינקסגיווינג) כעין חג לעשות בו סעודה. הנה לכאורה מכיוון שבספרי דתם לא הוזכר יום זה לחג, וגם לא שיתחייבו בסעודה, וכיוון שהוא יום זכר לאנשי המדינה,שהוא ג"כ שמח בהמדינה שבא לגור לכאן עתה או מכבר, לא מצינו בזה איסור לאו בעשיית שמחהבסעודה, ולא באכילת תרנגול ההודו (אינדיק). וכדמצינו כה"ג בקידושין דף ס"ו ע"א שינאי המלך עשהשמחה בכבישה דמלחמה בכוחלית שבמדבר ואכלו שם ירקות לזכר. אבל ודאי אסור לקבוע זה לחובהולמצווה, אלא לשמחת הרשות עתה. ובאופן זה בלא קביעות חובה ומצווה יוכל גם לשנה האחרת ג"כלשמוח ולעשות בו סעודה (ועי' עוד בזה להלן סימן י"ב).
אבל אני סובר דמ"מ אסור לעשות יום קבוע בשנה לחוג זה, ורק בשנה ההוא שכבש ינאי המלך, בזה עשההשמחה ולא לקביעות, ויש בה גם משום בל תוסיף, עיין מגילה דף ז' ע"א וברמב"ן בפירוש על התורהדברים על פסוק לא תוסיפו (דברים ד' ב'). ואף שיש לדון לענין הלאו, מ"מ איסור ודאי הוא זה.
- On the issue of joining with those who think that Thanksgiving is like a holiday to eat a meal: since it is clear that according to their religious law books this day is not mentioned as a religious holiday and that one is not obligated in a meal [according to Gentile religious law] and since this is a day of remembrance to citizens of this country, when they came to reside here either now or earlier, halacha sees no prohibition in celebrating with a meal or with the eating of turkey. One sees similar to this in Kiddushin 66 that Yanai the king made a party after the conquest of kochlet in the desert and they ate vegetables as a remembrance.
- Nonetheless it is prohibited to establish this as an obligation and religious commandment [mitzvah], and it remains a voluntary celebration now; in this manner -- without the establishment of obligation or religious commandment -- one can celebrate the next year too with a meal. But, I think, nonetheless it is prohibited to establish a fixed day in the year for the celebration and it is only in the first year of the event, like when Yanai conquered, and then they had a party, and not for permanence. There is also a problem of adding commandments . . . (27) Even though one can question the source, it is still a real prohibition.
- It was the opinion of Rabbi Soloveitchik that it was permissible to eat turkey at the end of November, on the day of Thanksgiving. We understood that, in his opinion, there was no question that turkey did not lack a tradition of kashrut (36) and that eating it on Thanksgiving was not a problem of imitating gentile customs. We also heard that this was the opinion of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik.
Rabbi Henkin suggests that it would be a good thing occasionally to skip the Thanksgiving meal, as a way of indicating that this event is not a religious "obligation," but is merely permissive, and thus accommodate the stricture of Rabbi Feinstein.
- In truth, one must distance oneself from these types of customs and even from those events that are similar to these types of customs . . . The truth is simple and obvious. (44)
Thus, those who eat fowl as a commemoration for the fact, as I heard it, that they did not have what to eat, and they found this bird, and they were very happy and rejoiced over having found this bird, this appears not to be a Gentile custom. Nonetheless, one must examine this to determine if it is, as it states in Yoreh Deah 147:6, a case of one who makes a private holiday, and worships many gods, on the day that he was born or was first shaved or any similar case. It is possible that Thanksgiving is such a case; even though they claim that they are worshipping God, and not idols, it is possible that there is a mixture here and thus it is possible that this is a Gentile ritual. Thus the Spirit of the Sages does not approve of one who celebrates, and it is possible that there is a biblical violation.
Rav David Cohen
The celebrating of Thanksgiving is something that has been disputed by many rabbis -- some prohibited and maintain that it is a derivative prohibition of idol worship and there are others who completely permit [its celebration]. In my opinion, to eat turkey for the sake of a holiday is prohibited by the rule of Tosafot, Avodah Zara 11a, since this is an irrational rule of theirs and following it is improper. Nonetheless, there is no prohibition for a family to get together on a day when people do not go to work and to eat together; if it is their wish to eat turkey not for the sake of thanks but because they like turkey, that is not prohibited, but the spirit of the Sages does not approve of such conduct, as they are functioning as if they follow the practice of Gentiles.
D. Summation of the Approaches
In sum, three premier authorities of the previous generation have taken three conflicting views.
- Rabbi Hutner perceived Thanksgiving as a Gentile holiday, and thus prohibited any involvement in the holiday.
- Rabbi Soloveitchik permitted the celebration of Thanksgiving and permitted eating turkey on that day. He ruled that Thanksgiving was not a religious holiday, and saw no problem with its celebration.
- Rabbi Feinstein adopted a middle ground. He maintained that Thanksgiving was not a religious holiday; but nonetheless thought that there were problems associated with "celebrating" any secular holiday. Thus, while he appears to have permitted eating turkey on that day, he would discourage any annual "celebration" (50) that would be festival-like.
Issues Related to Celebrating Thanksgiving
The issue of adding a day of celebration to the Jewish calendar is referred to by both Rabbis Feinstein and Hutner and deserves elaboration.
- Rabbi Hutner asserts that the dating of such a holiday through the Christian calendar is clear evidence that such a holiday is "Gentile" in nature and thus prohibited. (51)
- Rabbi Feinstein understands this problem differently. Rabbi Feinstein maintains that there are specific halachic problems associated with adding holidays to the Jewish calendar, independent of whether they are "secular", "Jewish," or "gentile." Indeed, these types of objections have been raised to the modern observances of Yom Hasho'a, Yom Ha'atzmaut, and Yom Yerushalayim, and have nothing necessarily to do with the presence of a Gentile origin. There is an extensive literature on this issue with many different opinions advanced.
Some authorities maintain, as Rabbi Feinstein appears to do, that it is absolutely prohibited to add holidays to the calendar as an annual observance.(52) These authorities rule that while individuals can annually celebrate such events on the day that they happen, these celebrations never get incorporated in the general Jewish calendar, and it is prohibited to do so. Others maintain that such events can only be incorporated in the calendar after they receive unanimous (perhaps multi-generational) rabbinic sanction. (53) Yet others rule that every Jewish society can incorporate these days of thanksgiving (or mourning) to reflect significant manifestations of God's will toward the community. (54) Yet others limit this to rituals that require no specialized blessings, and are technically permitted all year round. (55) No consensus has developed on this issue and each community follows its own custom on this issue. (56)
However, in this author's opinion, a strong case can be made that this dispute is not really applicable to the way Thanksgiving is, in fact, celebrated in America, and that even those who flatly prohibit any additions to the Jewish calendar are not referring to the festivities of American Independence Day, Thanksgiving or Labor Day. Rather, these authorities are referring to the highly ritualized religious expressions of thanks to God that accompany days of religious observance, such as the services on Yom Ha-atzma'ut or the like. Thanksgiving, like Independence Day and Labor Day, lacks any ritualized prayer component, formal activities of any kind, obligatory liturgy or a festival (mo'ed) attitude. (57) Even the holiday meal that many eat is not obligatory under American law. (58) Given the way that the completely secular (59) holidays are celebrated in this era in America, one would not think that any of them -- including Thanksgiving -- is an additional "festival" in the Jewish calendar. (60) Under this approach, Rabbi Feinstein's caveat would only limit the ritualized celebration of Thanksgiving. (61) Indeed, it is precisely this type of limitation on "celebration" that Rabbi Feinstein seems to be calling for, and which Rabbi Henkin endorses. (62)
One other issue is worth noting. All three of these authorities appear to agree that the celebration of a one-time day of thanksgiving to mark the first time an event worthy of thanks occurs, is not problematic. (63) Thus, for example, President Bush declared a day of thanksgiving in 1991 in response to the victory in the Persian Gulf war (64) and it would not be problematic according to any of these opinions to mark that one-time event with some form of a celebration. Indeed, as noted by Rabbi Feinstein, there is some talmudic precedent for that form of thanksgiving. (65)
Three conclusions to this article are worth noting:
Three basic approaches are taken by contemporary decisors (poskim) on the question of celebrating Thanksgiving. Some rule that Thanksgiving is not a Gentile holiday, but yet limit "celebration." They would, apparently, permit eating a turkey meal. Others prohibit any form of involvement in Thanksgiving, as they rule it a Gentile holiday. Yet others view the day no different from Independence Day and allow any celebration appropriate for a secular observance.
Indeed, there remains a basic dispute that permeates this review and divide contemporary American halachic authorities of the last seventy five years. The relevant issue is whether it is appropriate to distinguish between "secular society", "Gentile society" and "idol-worshiping society" in modern American culture. The validity of this distinction -- which was not generally made by the decisors of Eastern Europe two hundred years ago for the society of that time and place -- is extremely relevant to a broad variety of halachic issues related to contemporary American society.
Like many areas of Jewish law where there is a diversity of legitimate approaches, individuals should follow the practices of their community, family or rabbi, all-the-while respecting and accepting as halachicly permissible other community's practices. It is for the ability to respect and accept as legitimate the conduct of fellow observant Jews -- sanctioned by rabbinic authority -- that true thanksgiving to the Almighty is needed.
This article has so far avoided any discussion of normative halacha. Such cannot, however, be avoided, at least in a conclusion. It is my opinion that this article clearly establishes that: (1) Thanksgiving is a secular holiday with secular origins; (2) while some people celebrate Thanksgiving with religious rituals, the vast majority of Americans do not; (3) halacha permits one to celebrate secular holidays, so long as one avoids doing so with people who celebrate them through religious worship and (4) so long as one avoids giving the celebration of Thanksgiving the appearance of a religious rite (either by occasionally missing a year or in some other manner making it clear that this is not a religious duty) the technical problems raised by Rabbi Feinstein and others are inapplicable.
Thus, halacha law permits one to have a private Thanksgiving celebration with one's Jewish or secular friends and family. For reasons related to citizenship and the gratitude we feel towards the United States government, I would even suggest that such conduct is wise and proper.
It has been recounted that some marking of Thanksgiving day was the practice of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, thus adding force to our custom of noting the day in some manner.
Elsewhere in this article it is recounted that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik would reschedule shiur on Thanksgiving day, so that shiur started earlier, and ended earlier, allowing the celebration of Thanksgiving. It is important to note the Torah study was not canceled, or even curtailed. Rather, the day was rearranged to allow for a full compliment of Torah, hand in hand with the requisite "civil celebrations." That too is an important lesson in how we should mark Thanksgiving.
Torah learning must be an integral part of what we do, and how we function. Sometimes, because of the needs of the times or our duties as citizens, we undertake tasks that appear to conflict with our need to study and learn Torah. But yet we must continue to learn and study. Thus, Rabbi Soloveitchik did not cancel shiur on Thanksgiving. We, too, should not forget that leson. Torah study must go on.
Notes from שיעור of R' Hirsch
1) if connected to avodah zarah. not ok even if in torah 2)if not done for avodah zarah but is generally chok. ok if in torah
maharik: jews not need to be different than goyim just should not wear things of gaiyvah.
Rama: if good reason doing it then ok
beir hagrah: only time muttar is if can prove comes from judaism.
chachmas adam: gaon stopped minhag to decorate shul with plants cuz goyim did it in the church even though we were doing it like at har sinai
Jews like olive that can't mix/graft it
machlokes between the gaon and the rama/maharik
ramban on hatorah: if day of seudah might be a problem
smag: if say certain words to be like non-jew than is a problem
4 סימנים for kosher birds: non predater, peelable gizzard, extra toe, crop
Turkey, however, has no mesorah so is question if still kosher.
mishna berura: is kosher