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, 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, 1623in appreciation of an abundant harvest after a refreshing 14-day rain following a nearly catastrophic drought. Similar sporadic celebrations occurred locally throughout the New 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 States president 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, that 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, 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, this prohibition includes manners of dress, haircuts, and even building styles. Tosafos mentions that this prohibition includes two distinct types of customs: idolatrous ones, and those that are nonsensical; implying that even if they are not done l’sheim Avodah Zara, they would still be assur to practice.
However, the Ran and Maharik 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 rejects their understanding of the prohibition, and the Gilyon Maharsha seems to follow Tosafos, nevertheless the Rema 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.
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. 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), 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 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 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.
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-Thanksgiving 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.
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! 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!”
There are interesting reasons for this. First of all, it turns out that the last concurrence of both the first day of Chanuka and Thanksgiving as November 28th was in 1861. Yet, although celebrated in some form or another since the Pilgrims’ original Thanksgiving observance at Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts in 1621 after a successful growing season and harvest (mainly due to the aid of Squanto, the English-speaking ‘Indian’), however, the holiday was only formally established by President Lincoln in 1863, inthe midst of the Civil War [a.k.a. The War Between the States or The War of Northern Aggression (for the Southerners out there).] Also, until 1942, when it was changed by a joint resolution of Congress, Thanksgiving was observed on the last Thursday in November, not the next to last. Therefore, 1888 would have qualified as well. However, it should be noted that even in 2070 and 2165, Thanksgiving will not fall out on the first day of Chanuka, rather the first night of Chanuka will occur on Thanksgiving.
Vayikra Ch.18, verse 3.
Rambam (Hilchos Avodah Zara Ch. 11, 1- 3), Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Y”D 178, 1), based on the Sifra (Parshas Acharei Mos, Parshata 9, Ch. 13, 8).
Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 13a s.v. v’ee); answering up the seeming contradiction between the Gemara in Avodah Zara ad loc. and Sanhedrin 52b).
Ran (Avoda Zara 2b s.v. Yisrael), Chiddushei HaRan (Sanhedrin 52b), Shu”t Maharik (Mahar”i Kolon/ Cologne, Shoresh 88, Anaf 1).
Biur HaGr”a (Y”D 178, end 7) and Gilyon Maharsha (ad loc. 1). The Gr”a is bothered by the fact that the sugya in Sanhedrin seems to imply differently than the views of the Maharik, Ran, and later, the Rema, that a Chok Goyim, even one that is not a Chok Avodah Zarah should still be prohibited. Others who ask this question and conclude tzarich iyun on the Maharik’s shitta include the Minchas Chinuch (Mitzva 262, 2) and the Maharam Bennet (Divrei HaBris; cited Shu”t Imrei Aish Y”D 55). However, there are those who do resolve the Gra’s difficulty, such as the Maharam Shick (Shu”t Y”D 165). Furthermore, it must be noted that the Seridei Aish (Shu”t old print vol. 3, 93; new print Y”D 39, Anaf 2) at length proves that the Gra’s shitta is against the vast majority of Rishonim who conclude that unless there is at least a ‘shemetz’ of Avodah Zarah in their actions, copying them would not be a violation of Chukos HaGoyim. See also Shu”t Bnei Banim (vol. 2, 30) who writes that the minhag ha’olam is to follow the Rema in this dispute, as even according to those who generally follow the Gra’s psakim, that is only when it is a machlokes Acharonim. Yet, he posits, when the Gr”a argues on both Rishonim and Acharonim, then the normative halacha does not follow him. However, see Shu”t Mishna Halachos (vol. 10, 116) who does take the Gra’s opinion into account and seems to side with him (as explained later in the article).
Darchei Moshe and Rema (ad loc. 1). Although he does not cite either side of this machlokes in his Shulchan Aruch, nevertheless, in his Beis Yosef commentary Rav Yosef Karo explains the shitta of the Maharik at great length and does not even cite Tosafos! Although one may infer that the Rambam (and later the Shulchan Aruch who codified his words as halacha) actually meant similar to Tosafos’s understanding, as the implications of the prohibition of not copying actions of the Goyim, is seemingly unrelated to actions smacking of idol worship (and that is what the Raavad was arguing on and ruling akin to the Maharik), nonetheless, from the lashon of many other authorities, including the Maharik himself (ibid.), Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzva 262), Mabit (Kiryas Sefer on the Rambam ibid.), Meiri (Sanhedrin 52b), Bach (Y”D 178), and Divrei Chaim (Shu”t Y”D vol. 1, 30), it is clear that they understood that the Rambam himself was only referring to actions that had some relation to Avodah Zarah. See Shu”t Seridei Aish (old print vol. 3, 93; new print Y”D 39, Anaf 1, 5 - 14) who explains this at length. See also Shu”t Melamed L’Hoyeel (O.C. 16) and Minchas Asher (vol. 3, Vayikra, Parshas Emor, 33, ppg. 197 - 205) who discuss the parameters of the prohibition of “U’Vichukoseihem Lo Seleichu” and its nuances at length.
See Minchas Asher (ibid. pg. 200, s.v. u’vdaas) who cites an interesting dispute based on the machlokes between the Rema and the Gr”a. In Hilchos Shavuos (O.C. 494) the Rema records a well known minhag to festoon the shul with grasses as a zeicher to Har Sinai during Mattan Torah. The Magen Avraham (ad loc. end 5 s.v. nohagin)adds to place trees as well. What is lesser known is that the Chochmas Adam (89, end 1; and in Chayei Adam vol. 2, 131, 13) writes that according to the Gr”a it would be assur to do so; rather it is a blatant violation of “U’Vichukoseihem Lo Seleichu”! Since the Goyim would place a tree in their houses of worship during their holidays, and there is no smach from the Torah to do so on Shavuos, it would be assur according to the Gr”a. Yet, according to the Rema, since we have our own mekor for the minhag, it is not considered Chukos HaGoyim. [See also Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 494, end 6) and Mishna Berura (ad loc. end 10) on this machlokes. Perhaps one can be mechalek in the Gra’s intent between grass and trees.]
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).
The Chazon Ish as well (Kovetz Igros Chazon Ish vol. 1, 97), and echoed by Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Shu”t Yabea Omer vol. 6, O.C. 42), wrote very strongly against setting new dates and obligatory observances into our Jewish calendar. A similar sentiment is expressed by Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos vol. 2, 721), quoting the Brisker Rav.
Nefesh HaRav pg. 231. This author has heard from a talmid of Rav Soloveitchik’s that he would go home early on Thanksgiving, but only after making sure to give a full Shiur, which sometimes lasted several hours. Apparently he wanted to show his talmidim that a secular holiday is by no means an excuse to take a day off from Torah.
These Gedolim’s opinions appear in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (vol. 30, pg. 59).
Pachad Yitzchak - Igros U”Michtavim shel HaRav Hutner (109).
Shu”t Mishna Halachos (vol. 10, 116). He does however concede on one point and clarifies that having a Thanksgiving seudah is not b’geder ‘Yaharog V’al Yaavor’, notwithstanding what was written in his name on a Kol Koreh!
The Rabbis Cohen’s opinions appear in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (vol. 30, pg. 59). Many of these Rabbonim have written letters on topic to the author of this extensive article, Rabbi Michael J. Broyde of Atlanta, Georgia.
His reasoning is based on his understanding of the Rambam (Hilchos Malachim Ch. 19, 9), referring to the prohibitions of a Gentile to make for himself a day of rest akin to Shabbos or a Yom Moed. Rav Cohen posits that such a day is Thanksgiving which, in essence, is an attempt by Gentiles to create a special day of festivities, and is therefore prohibited. However, it is not clear to this author why Thanksgiving should be considered similar to a Moed or Yom Tov as there is no shvisas melacha involved with anyone’s observance of the day. Perhaps this why the other machmirim do not make use this halachic rationale to prohibit Thanksgiving celebrations.
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.
See, for example, Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky’s ‘Streets of Life’ column in Ami Magazine #143, October 2, 2013, titled ‘Tagging Along’ pg. 94. I have also heard this from noted historian Rabbi Berel Wein. Parenthetically, Rabbi Kamenetsky also mentions that his grandfather, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l did not partake of the turkey. IY”H the topic of whether or not turkey should be considered a kosher bird will be covered in a future article.
Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.
L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!
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By: Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky, Ph.D.
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