By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
It could be known as the “Great Modern-Orthodox/Yeshivish Divide,” although it has not yet entered the list of “shidduch questions” generally posed to parents of children who have entered the phase of dating. Is it halachically proper to celebrate Thanksgiving formally with a turkey dinner with one’s family? The question may be especially relevant in the aftermath of the hurricane and in light of President Obama’s position on the current situation in Israel.
The yeshiva community certainly expresses appreciation for the wonderful freedoms that this country has championed for its citizens and for peoples throughout the world. The greatest of our rabbis have stated that the United States is a malchus shel chesed, a kingdom of loving-kindness, and that our thoughts and prayers should express appreciation for the wonderful nation that we live in. Indeed, one rosh yeshiva once stated, “I would rather be a street sweeper in America, where I have the religious freedom to learn Torah, than a rabbi in Communist Russia.”
Is it permitted to express one’s appreciation within the context of the Thanksgiving holiday? What exactly is the nature of the Thanksgiving holiday? Is it a religious or a secular holiday? Finally, what is the definition of a religious holiday?
These are questions that must be resolved and addressed using logic and reason. No question of law or halachah should be addressed with emotion as the underlying motivation, as noble as the motivation may be.
What are the ramifications and parameters of the prohibition “Uvechukoseihem lo seileichu” (Vayikra 18:3)? The Shulchan Aruch and Rema (Yoreh Deah 178:1) teach, “We do not walk in the customs of the ovdei kochavim. Rather, one should be separate from them in one’s dress and in his other actions. This is only prohibited in matters that they do involving immodesty . . . or in a matter that they do as a custom or law with no basis to it . . . and if it has within it a smattering of avodas kochavim that they have from their ancestors . . .”
Rav Moshe Feinstein’s View
Does Thanksgiving have within it a smattering of avodas kochavim that they have from their ancestors? The Gedolim have issued their opinions on the matter. Rav Hutner clearly forbade the celebration of Thanksgiving (heard from his student, Rabbi Feitman), while Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Mordechai Gifter had more lenient approaches. The following is a translation of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s view found in his Igros Moshe (YD 4:11).
“And in the matter of participating with those who consider Thanksgiving as a sort of holiday to make a feast. It would seem that:
1. Since in the books of their religion this day is not mentioned as a holiday, and also that they are not obligated in holding a meal and;
2. Since it is a day of commemoration for the people of the country, in which he is also happy in the country that he came to reside in now or from before, we do not have a lav prohibition in rejoicing at such a feast, nor in the eating of turkey. And we find similar to this in Kiddushin (66a) that Yannai the King made a simcha for the victorious capturing in the war of Kuchalis in the wilderness, and they ate vegetables there to commemorate it. But it is certainly forbidden to establish it as an obligation and as a mitzvah. Rather it can be a voluntary celebration now. In this manner, without making it an obligation and a mitzvah, he may do so.
But I do hold that nonetheless it is forbidden to make this a permanent celebration. Only in that year that Yannai the King captured did he make it a simcha but not permanently, and there is also the prohibition of adding on to the Torah. Even though one can question whether it is a lav, nonetheless it is certainly forbidden.”
Other poskim, however, held to the more strict view that Thanksgiving falls under the Rema’s rubric of “a smattering of avodas kochavim that they have from their ancestors.” The history of Thanksgiving can be quite informative in understanding this position.
The History Of Thanksgiving
The pilgrims were, by and large, Christian religious refugees from England. Many of them died in the new country. The end of 1622 and the beginning of 1623 were particularly harsh months. They survived the winter and that summer they celebrated. The first celebration took place on July 30, 1623. In 1789, a resolution was presented to Congress to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. It was accepted and Thursday, November 26, 1789 was chosen as the day.
In 1817, New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. By the middle of the 19th century, many other states also celebrated a Thanksgiving Day. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of thanksgiving. Since then each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, usually designating the fourth Thursday of each November as the holiday.
Rav Feinstein, zt’l, applied the criterion of the day not being mentioned in the books of their religion as a determining factor as to whether a day might be considered a religious holiday or a national holiday. But does a religion have to be so official? What if a group of people break off from a church? They may not have official “books of their religion” yet we would clearly categorize their practices and observances as a religion.
Let’s take, for example, the Anglicans that were in this country at the very beginnings of the state. In the 1770’s, the Anglicans in this country were in a slightly awkward position. They were loyal Americans and yet they still belonged to the Church of England, whose leader was the King of England. What did they do? They broke away. Would one imagine that any religious practice that they observed would not be considered avodah zarah? Certainly not. Later, they formed the Episcopalian Church. But until that point they were a breakaway without official books or laws.
The pilgrims were Puritans who were religious refugees from England. To quote Bradford Smith, the author of “Bradford of Plymouth”:
“Puritanism in England was essentially a movement within the established church for the purifying of that church—for ministers godly and able to teach, for a simplifying of ritual, for a return to the virtues of primitive Christianity. There was nothing revolutionary about the main body of its doctrine. Its innovating principle was in the idea that the Bible, rather than any established religious hierarchy, was the final authority. Therefore every man, every individual, had direct access to the word of G‑d. It was the Puritan’s aim to reconstruct and purify not only the church, but individual conduct and all the institutions men live by.”
What was their concept of G‑d? The pilgrims were Puritans who believed in the Christian concept of the trinity.
So here we have a holiday established by a breakaway group from the Church of England, the purpose of which is to thank G‑d, or their concept of G‑d, for having saved them from that harsh winter. Their concept of G‑d does not coincide with the Judaic idea of G‑d’s Absolute Unity. One can easily understand why these poskim do not agree with Rav Feinstein’s position.
Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that one may eat turkey on Thanksgiving and eat a meal together with family at this time as long as one does not make it a hard and fast rule. Those who wish to follow this position certainly have whom to rely upon.
Others who question this understanding of the nature of the holiday should certainly not observe it if they feel uncomfortable. If they feel that it involves a smattering of avodah zarah, they should certainly refrain. Once again, these issues should be decided through logic and not through an emotional appeal or zeal.
Everyone should take the time to express gratitude to Hashem for the beautiful country we have. Not doing so, when everyone else is expressing their gratitude, smacks of a lack of gratitude. In order that it not be something reserved specifically for this day, however, it might be more worthwhile to express this gratitude on a grander scale than restricting it to merely one day.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.