New York – This year, 5774/2013, in what is being billed as a ‘once in eternity overlap’, the American holiday of Thanksgiving falls out on Chanuka! Although it turns out that that label is not entirely accurate, nevertheless, with the next possible co-incidence being 2070, and subsequently followed by 2165 (however, then Thanksgiving will not fall out on the first day of Chanuka, rather the first night of Chanuka will occur on Thanksgiving), it still may be correctly dubbed a ‘once in a lifetime occurrence’. Therefore, it bears finding out what, if any, halachic impact this calendarical synthesis has.
Americans commonly trace the holiday of Thanksgiving to the 1621 Pilgrim celebration at Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were expressing gratitude to God for a successful harvest after surviving a particularly harsh winter; mainly due to the aid of Squanto, the English speaking Native American, and the Wampanoag tribe, who taught them how to hunt (turkeys) and plant (maize) in the New World, and shared food supplies with them. A second Thanksgiving was observed on July 30th, 1623 in appreciation of an abundant harvest after a refreshing 14-day rain following a nearly catastrophic drought. Similar sporadic celebrations occurred locally throughout theNew England area for the next century or so, but never on a national level until 1777, during the Revolutionary War, when ‘The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving’ was given by the Continental Congress.
In 1782, John Hanson, the first United Statespresident under the Articles of Confederation (and mysteriously somehow forgotten from the history books), declared the fourth Thursday of every November was to be observed as Thanksgiving. Several years later, President George Washington issued ‘The First National Thanksgiving Proclamation’ (under the Constitution), designating November 26th 1789, as a day of Thanksgiving. He did so again in 1795. Yet, it was not until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, when the holiday as we know it was formally established by President Abraham Lincoln, at the urging and behest of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady Book, who was lobbying for a national day off from work. Thanksgiving has since been observed annually as a national holiday across the United States. But our subject is defining how Thanksgiving observance is viewed by Halacha.
To answer this question, a little halachic background is needed. In Parshas Acharei Mos (Vayikra Ch.18, verse 3), we are exhorted not to follow in the ways of the Goyim, “U’Vichukoseihem Lo Seleichu”. According to the Rambam and later codified by the Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Y”D 178, 1), this prohibition includes manners of dress, haircuts, and even building styles. Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 13a s.v. v’ee) mentions that this prohibition includes two distinct types of customs: idolatrous ones, and those that are nonsensical; implying even if they are not done l’sheim Avodah Zara, they would still be assur to practice.
However, the Ran (Avoda Zara 2b s.v. Yisrael) and Maharik (Shu”t Maharik, Shoresh 88, Anaf 1) define the prohibition differently. They maintain that a nonsensical custom of the Goyim is only prohibited when it is entirely irrational, with no comprehensible reason for it, or when it has connotations of idolatrous intent. Additionally, following a custom that would lead to a gross breach of modesty (pritzus) would fit the category. However, observing a simple custom of the Goyim that has no reference to Avodah Zara, would be permitted. Although the Vilna Gaon (Biur HaGr”a (Y”D 178, end 7) rejects their understanding of the prohibition, and the Gilyon Maharsha (ad loc. 1) seems to follow Tosafos, nevertheless the Rema (Y”D 178, 1) explicitly rules like the Maharik and Ran, as does the Beis Yosef. Accordingly, they hold that as long as a custom is secular, with no connection to Avodah Zara, we may observe such a custom as well.
[For more on the parameters of the prohibition of “U’Vichukoseihem Lo Seleichu” and its nuances at length, see Shu”t Melamed L’Hoyeel (O.C. 16), Shu”t Seridei Aish (old print vol. 3, 93; new print Y”D 39, Anaf 1, 5 – 14) and Minchas Asher (vol. 3, Vayikra, Parshas Emor, 33, ppg. 197 – 205).]
Thanksgiving: Religious or Secular?
But to understand how this affects us and possible Thanksgiving observance, we must first ascertain whether Thanksgiving is truly a religious holiday or a secular one. Of the aforementioned Thanksgiving observances, all were declared as a unique day expressly designated to thank God for all of his ‘gracious gifts’. This implies that it is meant to be a religious holiday. Yet, only the Continental Congress’s proclamation made reference to the Christian deity. Additionally, there is no actual religious service connected with the day at all. Furthermore, nowadays, the vast majority of Americans simply associate Thanksgiving with food (mainly turkey), football, and family, and take the day off. This implies that its observance is strictly secular. Will the real Thanksgiving please stand up?
As with many issues in halacha there are different approaches to Thanksgiving observance. In fact, Rav Moshe Feinstein alone has written four different responsa on topic (Shu”t Igros Moshe (E.H. vol. 2, 13; O.C. vol. 5, 20, 6; Y”D vol. 4, 11, 4; and Y”D vol. 4, 12). Although in the earlier teshuvos he seems to be against the idea of a Thanksgiving celebration, (possibly there were more religious connotations involved in the early 1960’s celebrations than in the 1980’s), nevertheless, in his later ones he allows a Thanksgiving observance (he notes that it is not a religious celebration) with turkey being served, as long as it is not seen as an obligatory annual celebration, but rather as a periodical ‘simchas reshus’. All the same, Rav Moshe concludes that it is still preferable not to have a celebration b’davka for Thanksgiving.
Other contemporary Gedolim who allowed eating turkey on Thanksgiving include Rav Eliezer Silver, Rav Yosef Dov (J.B.) Soloveitchik (the Boston Gaon; cited in Nefesh HaRav pg. 231), Rav Yehuda Hertzl Henkin, and the Rivevos Efraim. They maintain that Thanksgiving is “only a day of thanks and not, Heaven forbid, for idol celebration”, therefore eating turkey on Thanksgiving cannot be considered Chukos HaGoyim.
Yet, other contemporary authorities disagree. Rav Yitzchok Hutner is quoted (see Pachad Yitzchak – Igros U”Michtavim shel HaRav Hutner 109) as maintaining that the establishment of Thanksgiving as an annual holiday that is based on the Christian calendar is, at the very least, closely associated with Avodah Zarah and therefore prohibited. He explains that its annual observance classifies it as a ‘holiday’ and celebrating Gentile holidays is obviously not permitted.
Similarly, Rav Menashe Klein (Shu”t Mishna Halachos vol. 10, 116) ruled that it is a prohibited to celebrate Thanksgiving. Aside for citing the Gra’s opinion, which would prohibit any such celebration, he mentions that although the Thanksgiving holiday was originally established by (Pilgrims) rejoicing over their own survival, that they didn’t starve due to their finding the turkey, and might not be considered Chukos HaGoyim, nevertheless there is another prohibition involved. In Yoreh De’ah (148, 7), the Shulchan Aruch, based on a Mishna in Maseches Avodah Zara (8a), rules that if an idolater makes a personal holiday for various reasons (birthday, was let out of jail, etc.) and at that party he thanks his gods, it is prohibited to join in that celebration. Rav Klein posits that the same would apply to Thanksgiving, as it commemorates the original Pilgrim Thanksgiving, thanking God for the turkey and their survival, and would be certainly prohibited, and possibly even Biblically.
An analogous ruling was given by Rav Dovid Cohen (of Gevul Ya’avetz), and Rav Feivel Cohen (author of the Badei HaShulchan), albeit for different reasons. Rav Feivel Cohen takes a seemingly extreme approach, maintaining that not only is it forbidden for a Jew to celebrate Thanksgiving, it is even prohibited for a Gentile to do so as well. Rav Dovid Cohen, on the other hand, writes that for a Jew to eat turkey on Thanksgiving expressly for the sake of the holiday should be prohibited by the rule of Tosafos, as it would be deemed following an irrational rule of theirs that is improper to follow. Yet, he concedes that it is not prohibited for a family to get together on a day off from work and eat turkey together, as long as they do so not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but rather because they like turkey. Even so, he concludes that it is still preferable not to do so.
Trotting Out the Turkey?
With several differing major approaches to Thanksgiving advanced by contemporary authorities, which is the prevailing custom? Should turkey be on our plates this Thursday? The answer is that it depends. As shown, there are many authorities who felt that Thanksgiving dinner should be avoided. However, many people do eat turkey on Thanksgiving, albeit some with non-Thankgiving related intent. (Remember, even kosher turkey prices drop for the holiday!) Yet, one should not make an ‘exclusively for Thanksgiving’ party. Everyone should follow his community practice and the lead of their knowledgeable halachic authority.
Anecdotally, my own grandmother, Mrs. Ruth Spitz (May she have a Refuah Sheleimah), would buy a turkey, but instead of serving it for Thanksgiving dinner, would rather save it and serve it l’kavod Shabbos on the Shabbos immediately following Thanksgiving. This way one is not compromising on tradition nor halacha, and additionally receives the benefits of kavod and oneg Shabbos.
Although nowadays for many in Yeshivish and Chassidic circles the idea of observing some semblance of Thanksgiving may seem an anathema, it is interesting to note that many authorities of the previous generation did not seem too concerned with it. In fact, as is widely known, the annual Agudas Yisrael Convention, attended by many Gedolim, was traditionally held over Thanksgiving weekend for many decades, with turkey on the menu (As attested to in Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky’s ‘Streets of Life’ column in Ami Magazine #143, October 2, 2013, titled ‘Tagging Along’ pg. 94)! Additionally, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin’s authoritative Ezras Torah calendar (with halachos for the whole year) noted Thanksgiving along with other secular holidays.
Come what may, this year, with Thanksgiving falling out on the first day of Chanuka, it most definitely will be a day of thanks giving, lehodos u’lehallel. In fact, in an interesting turn of phrase, whether or not one is talking turkey, it will be a day when we can all truly exclaim “Hodu Lashem Ki Tov!”
Many of the shittos of Rabbanim mentioned in this article first appeared in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (vol. 30, pg. 59).
Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Sho’el U’ Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim. For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author: [email protected].