New York – Halachic Analysis: Celebrating New Year

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    New York – With the gentile New Year fast approaching I would, respectfully, like to take issue with some rulings issued by Rabbi Michael Broyde in a recent article he wrote (Hirhurim – Torahmusings.com “Is New Years Kosher? December 27, ‘11) concerning both New Year’s and Valentine’s Day. [See http://torahmusings.com/2011/12/is-new-years-kosher/] Although I generally find Rabbi Broyde’s halachic analyses to be cogent and well-argued, it is my contention that the rulings in his article are based upon very subtle misreadings and mistranslations of important halachic texts.

    Referring to a previous article he penned, Rabbi Broyde writes:

    “I concluded that Valentine’s day has a clearly Christian origin but that the Christian origin has nearly completely vanished in our secular society. I argued that celebrating Valentine’s Day is quite different from Halloween..the mode of Valentine’s Day celebrations can be explained in our secular society completely rationally, grounded in such notions as sharing love, noting friendship and (perhaps most importantly) eating chocolate. Each of these values are not inherently religious or can be explained rationally, as the Rama (YD 178:1) requires for transposing actions with religious origins into secular practices that Jews can engage in.

    That article made the following observation, which is important to recall. Even when a holiday is completely pagan in nature, halacha still recognizes that this does not make all modes of involvement prohibited. Rabbi Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:11(4)) is logically correct in his observation that:

    ‘Thus, it is obvious in my opinion, that even in a case where something would be considered a prohibited Gentile custom, if many people do it for reasons unrelated to their religion or law, but rather because it is pleasurable to them, there is no prohibition of imitating Gentile custom. So too, it is obvious that if Gentiles were to make a religious law to eat a particular item that is good to eat, halacha would not prohibit eating that item. So too, any item of pleasure in the world cannot be prohibited merely because Gentiles do so out of religious observance.’ ”

    Rabbi Broyde continues: “Thus, I concluded that eating chocolate on Valentine’s Day and even giving chocolate to another, so long as there is not notation of why such is being giving, is permissible, even if one disagreed with the analysis above and thought Valentine’s Day was still a Christian holiday. The same can be said for any activity intrinsically of value, such as a husband expressing his love of his wife, or giving flowers to a beloved — each of which would be a nice gesture all year round. I concluded that it was the conduct of the pious to not overtly celebrate Valentine’s day, although bringing home chocolate, flowers or even jewelry to one’s wife is always a nice idea all year around, including on February 14.”
    I contend that Rabbi Broyde has not only mis-referenced the Igros Moshe (It should read Igros Moshe YD IV 11:3), but has subtly mistranslated his words, thus allowing for an interpretation that Rav Feinstein would never have countenanced.

    Rabbi Broyde’s translation reads: “even in a case where something would be considered a prohibited Gentile custom, if many people do it for reasons unrelated to their religion or law, but rather because it is pleasurable to them, there is no prohibition of imitating Gentile custom.”
    Rav Feinstein’s exact words were, “that even a matter that is certainly considered Chok HaAkum, if it is something where we observe that the entire gentile world does this, (even those) that have no connection at all to their belief and to their customs, rather [they do so] because it is more convenient for the masses to do so, there is already no prohibition of imitating gentile custom.”

    Remarkably, this mistranslation of Rav Feinstein’s responsa is used by Rabbi Broyde to justify giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day. Truthfully, I am rather shocked at this. Rabbi Feinstein was referring to the notion that not covering the head when eating cannot be considered a prohibition of imitating gentile custom because the universal world of non-Jews, as a whole do this – even the non-Christians. This is a far cry from giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day – Februrary 14th. There, it is hardly the universal practice to give chocolates on Februrary 14th. While the giving of chocolates is universally practiced, doing so on February 14th is not universal in cultures that are foreign to Christianity. Rav Broyde has created a leap in Rav Feinstein’s formulation, and has, in this author’s opinion, fundamentally misconstrued the halacha.

    Thus, in this author’s opinion, it is not just an act of the pious to refrain from giving chocolates to one’s wife or a friend on Valentine’s Day – it is entirely forbidden and a Biblical violation of “walking in the ways of the gentiles.” Do not take my word for it, however. Please present both readings of the Igros Moshe to your own Posaik.

    By the same token, I would like to take issue with Rabbi Broyde’s permissive view regarding New Years.

    He writes:

    “According to Rama (YD 148:12), New Year’s day is a Christian Holiday..whose celebration must be avoided and can only be marked when long term life threatening hatred to our community will result if gifts are not given.

    On the other hand, the reality seems to have completely changed. New Year’s Day – like Valentine’s Day and unlike Christmas – seems to have completely lost its Christian overtones. Even in the deep Christian South where I live there are no indicia that connect New Years Day to Christianity. The “first generation” Hindu and Muslim communities in Atlanta – who would never celebrate Christmas – have New Year’s Eve parties. It is obvious that the status of New Year’s Day has changed in the last three hundred years.

    Indeed, in contemporary America there is little religious content or expression to New Year’s Day. Few would classify it as a religious holiday, as there is a clear secular method and reason to celebrate New Year’s day, and thus it has lost its status as a Christian Holiday. Rabbi Feinstein notes this directly himself in Iggerot Moshe (Even Haezer 2:13). He writes with regard to New Year’s:

    ‘The first day of the year for them [January 1] . . . is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [baalei nefesh] should be strict.’”
    Rabbi Broyde continues: “This insight, written in 1963, is even more true nowadays. The Christian origins of New Year’s is even more cloaked now than a half century ago..My own sense is that the central question here is “what do we really mean by celebrating” and that this is a good tool to use to determine how we ought to conduct ourselves as a matter of halacha..So too, I think that one can go to an office New Year’s Eve party when one feels that such conduct is needed and part of the culture of the office one works. Assuming other aspects of Jewish law can be observed, I think that Rav Moshe’s assertion that avoiding such a party is the conduct of the pious is correct, and technical Jewish law permits such.”

    Rabbi Broyde’s reading of Igros Moshe here too, in this author’s opinion, is flawed and erroneous. Rav Feinstein was solely discussing the permissibility of conducting a Bar Mitzvah or Jewish wedding celebration on New Year’s Day on account of the prohibition of Maris Ayin. To this Rav Feinstein writes that it would be the conduct of the pious not to perform it then. Yet, shockingly, nowhere in Rabbi Broyde’s article does he mention this at all. Reading Rabbi Broyde’s article, one thinks that the party Rav Moshe refers to is a New Year’s party, heaven forbid. True, Rav Feinstein seems to be drawing a distinction between New Year’s and Thanksgiving versus December 25th, but only in terms of there not being a prohibition of Maris Ayin in conducting a Jewish celebration on that day. Rabbi Broyde takes this distinction drawn by Rabbi Feinstein and extends it further to permit, on his own accord, attending an office New Year’s Eve party. His placing the words of “avoiding such a party is the conduct of the pious” as an assertion of Rav Moshe Feinstein without having stated that Rav Moshe was solely referring to a Bar Mitzvah or wedding is grossly misleading.

    It is also this author’s opinion that the Ramah in Yore Deah 178:1 cited by Rabbi Broyde wherein he derives four rules of thumb to determine the halachic permissibility of copying certain activities is also misconstrued. To clarify the Ramah’s meaning and intent one must look at the Maharik, the Ramah’s source, and it will be seen that if a custom is observed for the purpose of keeping a gentile tradition – then that too is a violation.

    This, however, requires a longer discussion Generally speaking, this author is in awe of Rabbi Broyde’s vast erudition. However, and with due respect, it is my contention that Rav Broyde’s two permissive rulings here, concerning office New Year’s Eve parties and Valentine’s Day chocolates, are, in fact, complete violations of the Torah law of “following in the ways of the gentiles.” The quotations of Rav Feinstein zatzal have been very subtly (but not willfully) mistranslated and misconstrued. One can certainly understand Rabbi Broyde’s motivation, as an out of town Rabbi who seeks the spiritual welfare of his congregants, but it cannot and must not be at the price of halachic observance.

    The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com

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    37 COMMENTS

    1. A very interesting article. I celebrate valentines day with my wife. There is ZERO religious undertones and it is purely for the flowers, chocolate and expression of love. Our family also has a thanksgiving meal, again to celebrate family and our thanks for everything we have.

      • I don’t understand what the problem is. Yair Hoffman, I simply accompany my female friends to church on Valentine’s day and give her flowers and chocolate and flowers, then leave. I don’t stay for services!

        Similarly, I don’t often attend New Year’s Eve mass at church or I will miss Maariv. Also Memorial day mass, since as you know, most soldiers who were killed were non-Jewish!

      • You do realize that it is St. Valentine’s Day? Thanksgiving you might have more of a source to celebrate, but not St. Valentine’s, nor St. Patrick’s. How would you feel if goyim turned Lag Bomer into a secular holiday? Interesting note, secular Israelis have turned Tu B’Av into a Jewish Valentines Day, similar to how they turned Tu B’Shvat into Arbor Day, as opposed to the traditional fruit feast. Maybe you should tell ur wife u are switching Valentines to Tu B’Av, might be less problematic, and still a “modern orthodox” type of thing to do

    2. Without wishing to get involved in the discussion of halacha per se, I have these questions for Rabbi Hoffman.

      I’ve heard reliable reports that a good number of rabbis and choshuv Jews buy chocolate for their wives on February 14.

      Heard you heard this too? Are they in “complete violation of the Torah law of ‘following in the ways of the gentiles’?”

      • everything has a spiritual source.clearly the source for valentines day is catholic and therefore in the realm of tumah. we can laugh it off and say it has nothing to do with us or we can tune in to the sprituality,both holy and profane,that permeats this world.

        • Thank you…I have shaken my head, cried, chuckled and even got angry when reading comments from VIN, but I finally laughed out loudly to your response! Now watch how you will get bombarded with “why did you make such a joke, don’t we get enough of them from non-jews?” From my BP orthodox upbringing, am I still allowed to say, according to the ultra-rebbitzen in the “burbs”, Valentine’s Day is off limits to orthodox Jews…secular Jews give candy, flowers and of course jewelry! Halloween too…this is a pagan holiday, again, what orthodox child goes trick-or treating? But secular Jews, of course, any excuse to see how your neighbor just redecorated her house, when your kid rings the bell for candy, they HAVE TO OPEN THEIR DOOR.

    3. Do you honestly believe that it is a biblical transgression to consume chocolate or to buy your wife flowers on Feb. 14? Would this include leftover gelt from Channukah? What if Feb. 14 coincides with erev Shabbos and you always (or occasionally) bring home flowers for the honor of the Sabbath (a minhag of Joseph Lieberman)?

    4. On most occasions, I totally agree with Rav Hoffman’s writings but in this case I think he goes too far. No frum yid I know “celebrates” New Year’s as a religious holiday or fails to understand its totally secular nature. No frei yid will confuse a frum yid’s attendance at a New Year’s Eve party as anything more than a social gather with friends (i.e. there is no issue of maris ayin). I think we over-analyze these issues to the point of absurdity. It shouldn’t even be a question but for some reason even these kinds of trivia become the subject of halachic analysis.
      P.S. I would tread lightly when disputing the Igros Moshe and saying that Rav. Feinstein, shlita got it all wrong.

    5. I am very impressed with this article and with the courteous yet forceful way the author responded. In the past, Rabbi B. has written controversial articles and teh manner in which it was responded to, was, quite frankly – ugly. Here, Rabbi Hoffman used penetrating analysis and translation to dispute Rabbi Broidy, and I believe he is correct. Thank you!

    6. Sorry #9 – You misread Rav Hoffmans article. He is NOT DISPUTING Rav Moshe – he is explaining Rav Moshe properly and showing that Rabbi Broyde misuoted him. You must reread Rav Hoffman’s article. And apologize to him perhaps.

    7. I don’t think that celebrating January 1st as New Year’s day was ever a Christian holiday but rather a pre-Christian Roman celebration. Since no one (to my knowledge) practices Roman paganism any more, it would seem that there is no religious connotation to New Year’s at all. It does, however, seem to me that having a specific New Year’s Eve party might be an issue of chukas haGoyim, though.

      • Many churches celebrate January 1 as the bris milah of yoshka, citing it was the first time he shed blood. It was common to make pilgrimages to churches that claimed to somehow have his orlah, believe it or not! (of course they were not real but imagine even making such a claim!) A few decades ago, the Roman Catholic Church changed it to the feast of mary. It is still celebrated as a religious holiday in many christian denominations – look it up of wikipedia

    8. There are so many opinions in Halacha. People need to follow their Rav or derech. It always amazes me how indignant and excited people get when they feel someone has explained the halacha wrong. Hello its only your opinion. There are other opinions. Follow what you believe to be correct but it makes no sense to get all worked up about it when there are multiple opinion in almost every halacha.

    9. thousands of goyim are traveling to uman for new years…

      nice article rabbi hoffman, it boils down to this question: is a jew aloud to go to times square on new years to watch the ball drop or not ?

    10. I have no doubt that sound reasoning is at the heart of Rabbi Hoffman’s analysis and makes for a resounding chorus of Q and A in the beis medrash. But in the real world the entire thesis is misplaced. At a time when basic common courtesy between yiddin is appalingly lax, at a time when bein odom lchaveiro is just a catch phrase – any effort, be it chocolates on Valentine’s, Thanksgiving – should be lauded, not ossured.

    11. My “problem” is that my wife’s birthday is Feb 13. Buying flowers that day (of the next) is 2-3 times the price on Feb 15!!!
      And my wife is NOT moichel me if I “forget” and bring her flowers on the 15th!!!

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