Some Jews feel uneasy about celebrating Thanksgiving, but the holiday may have more to share with the faith than previously believed.
While some people are trying to figure out how to cook their turkey, others are double checking to make sure the turkey is kosher. Lately, one has been asked above the rest, as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches this week: Is it halachically appropriate to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with one’s family? Some say this could be called the “Great Modern-Orthodox/Yeshivesh Divide.”
In the Judaic community, and all religions, these types of questions are tackled with logic and reason, and often the assistance of a Rabbi or Posek. They will be able to offer the proper guidance and help you to look deeper into the word. The first step to figuring it out is in understanding the history of the holiday. There are some overall questions that work together to aid in answering the bigger question.
The Prohibition of Ubecheukosaihem lo sailechu (VaYikra 18:3)
What are the parameters? “We do not walk in the customs of the Ovdei Kochavim… (Ramah) 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 which involve immodesty.. or in a matter that they do as a custom or law with not basis to it.. and it contains within it a smattering of Avodas Kochavim that they have from their ancestors.” Does Thanksgiving have a smattering of Avodas Kochavim that they have from their ancestors?
The Gedolim have already offered their opinions. Rav Yitzchok Hutner completely forbade it, according to Rabbi Yakkov Feitman, his student, and Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Modechai Gifter gave it the okay, as long as it’s not made a permanent or religious practice. Rav Moshe Feinstein presented his view in his Igros Moshe (YD 4:11). He said that since their religious books don’t mention Thanksgiving as a holiday, nor do they require you hold a feast, and because the day is a commemoration for the country, “in which he is also happy in the country he came to reside in now from before,” there is no law prohibiting rejoicing a feast or enjoying turkey. “In Kiddushin 66a, that Yannai the King made a simcha for the victorious capturing in the war of Kuchalis in the wilderness. They ate vegetables there to commorate it.” He did, however, say that it is “certainly forbidden” that anyone make it a permanent simcha, or add the Torah to it.
Are Thanksgiving and Judaism Connected?
Thanksgiving and Chanukkah may be around the same time, but it turns out that Judaism and Thanksgiving are more related than just having celebrations this time of year. Sukkot, a Jewish Harvest Festival, holds some similarities with Thanksgiving. Sukkot marks the time that the Israelites wandered the desert to escape slavery. They were headed for Canaan. Thanksgiving, even though it first occurred in 1623, the original celebration took place after one of the worst winters and summers, just after the Puritans (pilgrims) arrived in America to escape religious persecution. They celebrated their survival, though many had died. Over the years it grew into a national celebration.
However, many disagree on its supposed lack-of-religious affiliation. The Puritans held to a Christian concept of trinity, while Judaism has the concept of G-d’s Absolute Unity. The Puritans celebrated with a feast to thank G-d for saving them from the winter.
Overall, those who wish to celebrate, and don’t let it interfere with their faith, often enjoy the Thanksgiving festivities, as Rav Moshe Feinstein did rule it okay to do so. And of course, those who feel it contains a smattering of Avodas Kochavim, don’t have to partake.