Thanksgiving

May one celebrate thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is celebrated annually in the United States on the fourth/last Thursday of November and is considered a Federal holiday, in which people have off from work and spend time with family. Customarily, a special Thanksgiving dinner is served, which includes Turkey and other foods. The question is asked regarding if a Jew may celebrate this Holiday by either attending or making a party, or eating Turkey in its honor. The Halachic questions involved is whether the Holiday derives from a foreign religion, and whether celebrating it transgresses the prohibitions of “Darkei Emori” and “Bechukoseiheim Lo Seileichu.” To understand this subject properly, we will preface it with a general introduction as to its History and initiation.

 

A. The history:

Historically, the celebration of Thanksgiving can be traced back to the early 1600’s and possibly earlier. Famously, Thanksgiving was celebrated by the early pilgrims who came on the mayflower ship in 1620 and settled in Plymouth Massachusetts. These pilgrims were a fringe group of Puritans, a group of reformed Protestants originally from England, who broke off from the Church of England and came to search for a homeland where they can follow their religion without persecution of the English church. The Puritans desired to abolish the common Catholic Holidays celebrated by the Roman and Catholic church and in its place to have celebratory days of thanksgiving, in which they give gratitude to G-d for saving them and helping them in the course of their lives. One year later, in 1621, they celebrated a three-day Thanksgiving celebrating the successful Harvest of crop, and using the days to give thanks to G-d. While this Thanksgiving celebration is the oldest record attained of the event [found in writing], nonetheless, there are records of Thanksgiving days of celebration by non-Puritan pilgrims, as well as Indian Natives of America.[1] Residents of New England for example, were accustomed to rejoice after a successful harvest, based on ancient English harvest festivals, not relating to their religion. The celebration was colony based and not considered a national widespread Holiday until 1789. 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.” The official proclamation was then passed by George Washington as a day of giving thanks to the Almighty for all of His greatness and goodness that He has done.[2] This day did not become an official national Holiday with off from work until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation, turning Thanksgiving into an official national Holiday.

History of Eating Turkey: While wild fowl was a commonly available poultry eaten by the Pilgrims and Native Americans, there is no known Historical record connecting specifically the eating of Turkey with Thanksgiving, although this has been the tradition for quite some time.

 

B. The Halacha:

It is forbidden to take any part in a celebration associated with idolatry.[3] It is likewise forbidden for one to follow the path of gentiles or try to be like them.[4]  It is likewise forbidden to perform actions that have no meaning and are considered Darkei Emori.[5] Accordingly, some Rabbanim[6] rule that one is not to celebrate Thanksgiving with a party, or through having a customary Thanksgiving menu, due to it infringing on some or all of the above issues.[7] Other Poskim[8] however rule it is permitted to celebrate the day with family and friends and have a special Thanksgiving menu, including Turkey, and doing so is not related to any of the above prohibitions.[9] Nevertheless, some of these Poskim[10] maintain that it is forbidden to make it into a set Holiday that must celebrated annually, and rather it is to be voluntary each year and only done on occasion.[11] [Seemingly, after the careful study of the history behind Thanksgiving, as stated above in A, it appears there is no issue at all involved in celebrating Thanksgiving, as stated in the lenient opinion. Practically, many Frum Jews are accustomed to celebrate the day with Turkey, however others are particular not to do so, and one is to contact his Rav for a final ruling. The Rebbe in a talk[12] made mention of the day of Thanksgiving and praised the United States for being a G-d oriented country, setting aside a day to give thanks to G-d. While the Rebbe praised the idea of the National Holiday and its meaning, no mention was made regarding whether a Jew may or m ay not celebrate it.]

 

Summary:
Many are accustomed to celebrate Thanksgiving and have a Turkey dinner menu, and those who do so have upon whom to rely. Others are stringent to avoid doing so. One is to contact his Rav for a final directive.

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[1] Florida, Texas, Maine and Virginia each declare itself the site of the First Thanksgiving and historical documents support the various claims. Spanish explorers and other English Colonists celebrated religious services of thanksgiving years before Mayflower arrived. 

[2] The following is the original letter of proclamation: By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me 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 signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

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 which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, 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 hath been pleased to confer upon us. and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington

[3] See Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 148

[4] Michaber and Rama Y.D. 178/1

[5] Admur 301/33

[6] So held some American Rabbanim of the past generation; See Igros Moshe O.C. 5/20-6; 5/30-6

[7] The reason: As a) Some Poskim rule that due to the prohibition of “Ubechukoseihem Lo Seileichu” one may not imitate a practice of the gentiles unless it originated from Jewish sources. [See Gr”a Y.D. 178/7; Darkei Teshuvah Y.D. 178/14] b) Eating Turkey on Thanksgiving has no understandable source or reason and is hence considered Darkei Emori.  [See Igros Moshe O.C. 5/30-6]

[8] See Igros Moshe E.H. 2/13; Y.D. 4/11-4; O.C. 5/11-4; So held some American Rabbanim of the past generation

[9] The reason: As a) It is not a religious Holiday. b) It is not sourced in idolatry; c) It has a valid reason; to give thanks to G-d. d) The eating of Turkey is done as a celebratory food because it tastes good and serves many at a meal, and is not related to unknown practices. Therefore, it does not transgress any of the above issues, as only the ways of the gentiles that are done for idolatry prupsoes or have no source for their meaning are forbidden under the clause of Darkei Emori and Bechukoseihem Lo Seileichu. [See Rama 178/1; Maharik 88; Igros Moshe ibid] Furthermore, one can learn that only is it permitted to celebrate the day but that this day should be celebrated by Jews, as it gives thanks to Hashem for giving us the United States of America, which has served as a place of refuge for millions of Jews from religious and physical persecution.

[10] Igros Moshe Y.D. ibid; 5/20-6; O.C. 5/30-6

[11] The reason: As doing so transgresses the prohibition of Darkei Emori and “Ubechukoseiheim Lo Seileichu” as there is not enoygh logical explanation to set the day for all generations as a day of celebration. It also transgresses Baal Tosif. [Igros Moshe ibid]

[12] Sichas 19th Kisleiv 5747; Free Translation from SIE: “It is appropriate to reiterate that the character of this nation is based on faith in G-d. And we speak not of an abstract Super Being; but of G-d, Creator and Master of the world. One can profess belief in a Creator while failing to recognize G-d’s interest in the details of the world and in man’s mortal actions. Our nation however, is built on the principles established by the founding fathers. When they landed on these shores one of their first acts was to set and proclaim a holiday of Thanksgiving to the Creator and Master of the world who had saved them from danger and brought them to these safe shores. Here they could live without fear, religious persecution or oppressive decrees. Here they could conduct their lives according to their sacred beliefs. Their thanksgiving expressed this faith: G-d not only created the world but also directs the events of the world. They recognized the providence of G-d in their salvation. This holiday has become tradition and every year we offer sincere thanksgiving to the Al-mighty for showing those early settlers His abundant kindness. Even the estranged souls, who in their heart believe in G-d but outwardly boast of atheism or relegate G-d to the seventh Heaven, certainly participate in the customs of the holiday of Thanksgiving established by those original Americans.”

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