Torah from Dixie proudly presents
A Secular or Religious Holiday?
(With an Appendix about Halloween)
by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde
Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. It is no longer (and perhaps never was) a celebration affiliated with any particular religion or faith, although some in America celebrate with religious ceremonies. On a social level, it is celebrated by Americans of a broad variety of religious backgrounds. This article discusses the halachic issues related to the different forms of celebrating (1) Thanksgiving that one witnesses in America currently. In particular, this article will focus on whether the holiday of Thanksgiving is essentially a religious holiday, a secular holiday, or an ambiguous one. (2)
The History of American Thanksgiving (3)
Before any halachic analysis can be done, it is necessary to place the observance of the holiday of Thanksgiving in America in the proper historical context. The first Thanksgiving day celebration was held in response to the survival by the pilgrims of the particularly harsh winter of 1622/3. Not only did the colonists themselves celebrate, but food was sufficiently plenty that even the Indians with whom the colonists were at peace were invited. This celebration took place on July 30, 1623 (in the middle of the summer). Similar such celebrations occurred throughout the New England area throughout the 1600's. (4) However, they were only local (rather than national or even regional) celebrations of Thanksgiving -- and only to mark the end of a particularly difficult winter -- until 1789. (5)
In 1789, Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey proposed in Congress a resolution urging President Washington to:
After quite a debate, President Washington issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation, setting November 26, 1789 as Thanksgiving and a national holiday. Washington stated in his proclamation:
It was not until 1846, when the unity of the country was again in controversy because of the Missouri Compromise and the problems of slavery, that the celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday returned to the national agenda. From 1846 to 1863, Ms. Sara Joseph Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady Book (10) embarked on a campaign to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday during which workers would not be required to go to work. Her campaign culminated in President Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation of 1863 -- the first such proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday since 1789. Since 1863, Thanksgiving has been celebrated as a national holiday and a day of rest at the end of November, either the fourth or fifth Thursday of the month. (11)
One might ask whether Jewish law should simply defer to the American law determination here that Thanksgiving is a "secular" and not a religious holiday. Once this conclusion is reached, the claim is made, little controversy remains. The simple answer is that American law adopts a definition of "secular" that clearly is "religious" in the eyes of Jewish law. For example, in Cammack v. Waihee,(12) a court determined that the holiday called "Good Friday" was a "secular" holiday. So too, the Supreme Court has ruled that both Christmas and Channukah are "secular" holidays and have "secular" displays that lack a religious theme. (13) Certainly Jewish law views neither of them as "secular" and would not accept American law's definition of "secular" as binding on adherents of halacha. (14)
A Halachic Analysis of Thanksgiving
Having reviewed the history of Thanksgiving, it is now necessary to turn to the question of halachic issues involved in its "celebration". The first, and most significant issue, is whether it is permissible to eat a Thanksgiving meal, with the classical foods that American tradition indicates one should eat at this meal: turkey (15) and cranberry sauce. Among the authorities of the previous generation, three different positions have been taken on this topic, and these three positions have each been accepted by various halachic authorities of the current generation.
However, before these three positions can be understood, a certain background into the nature of the prohibition to imitate Gentile customs must be understood. (16) Tosafot understands that two distinctly different types of customs are forbidden by the prohibition of imitating Gentile customs found in Leviticus 18:3. The first is idolatrous customs and the second is foolish customs found in the Gentile community, even if their origins are not idolatrous. (17) Rabbenu Nissim and Maharik disagree and rule that only customs that have a basis in idolatrous practices are prohibited. Apparently foolish -- but secular -- customs are permissible so long as they have a reasonable explanation (and are not immodest). (18) Normative halacha follows the ruling of the Ran and Maharik. As noted by Rama:
As will be seen later, there are authorities who favor being strict for the opinion of the Gra, who rules that the only time "secular" customs are permissible is when they have a Jewish origin. (20) According to this approach, secular customs created by Gentiles are prohibited even when their origins are not religious.
Additionally -- and independent of the halachic obligation to avoid Gentile religious customs -- Jewish law forbids a Jew from actually celebrating idolatrous religious events himself. Thus, a Jew may not attend an idolatrous "Indian" (21) office party or directly facilitate its observance. (22) So too, a Jew may not attend a birthday party for an idol worshipper if the birthday party includes worship of idols. (23)
A. The Approach of Rabbi Feinstein
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein has four published responsa on the issues related to celebrating Thanksgiving, all of which conclude that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, but a secular one. The first responsum, written in 1953/5723, discusses the deliberate scheduling of weddings and the like on religious holidays of other faiths. Rabbi Feinstein states:
Rabbi Feinstein reinforces his understanding that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday in a responsum published in 1980/5741. He states:
Thus, Rabbi Feinstein appears to rule that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, and there is no problem of "Gentile holidays" while observing it. Nonetheless he prohibits its ongoing celebration as an obligation on a particular day because he feels that it is a prohibited addition to the Jewish calendar or creates a problem of adding commandments. While Rabbi Feinstein's objections to adding observances will be discussed later on, it is clear that he sees no problem in Thanksgiving's celebration as a Gentile holiday, and he appears to see no problem with eating a turkey meal on that day as a matter of choice, and not obligation. (29)
As proof to the fact that Rabbi Feinstein rules eating turkey permissible, one sees that elsewhere in the same teshuva Rabbi Feinstein states:
Rabbi Feinstein then applies this principle to going bare-headed, and rules that even if some Gentiles do so out of religious fervor, since many people do so out of concerns for comfort, this is not considered a religious custom.
Rabbi Feinstein, in a recently published teshuva also written in 1980/5741, seems to state that in fact there is a prohibition to celebrate Thanksgiving, even though he acknowledges that Thanksgiving has no religious content. In this teshuva he views such celebratory activity on Thanksgiving as irrational, and thus prohibited as a form of imitating secular society. However, a close examination of that letter reveals that the only time Rabbi Feinstein would consider that conduct prohibited is if it was done with celebratory rituals associated with actually celebrating Thanksgiving, (perhaps reciting a text or singing a song), and not merely eating a meal. (31) Indeed, Rabbi Feinstein, in his fourth teshuva on this topic, clearly recognizes that even this is a stricture, as it is predicated on the approach which argues that secular rituals that have no religious origins are prohibited by the prohibition of imitating Gentiles (see the Introduction to this Part), which he states is not the normative halacha, but a mere stricture. In this teshuva, he states that the responsa block quoted above is to be considered the normative one. (32)
Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt also permits the celebration of Thanksgiving by the eating of turkey. (33) He states that he has a responsum set to be published (34) that rules that it is permissible to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, because Thanksgiving is "only a day of thanks, and not, heaven forbid, for idol celebration." Rabbi Greenblatt adds that he posed this question more than thirty years ago to Rabbi Eliezer Silver and that Rabbi Silver also ruled that it was permissible to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. (35)
B. The Approach of Rabbi Soloveitchik
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also agreed that Thanksgiving was not a Gentile holiday, and ruled that it was permissible to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, in his intellectual biography of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Nefesh HaRav, writes:
Others have also recounted that Rabbi Soloveitchik ruled this way, and that he found it difficult to comprehend how one could consider Thanksgiving a Gentile holiday or that it was prohibited to celebrate it. (37) Indeed, there were instances when Rabbi Soloveitchik implied to his students that he and his family celebrated Thanksgiving, although shiur was always held on Thanksgiving. (38)
A similar view is taken by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, who states that it is clear that halacha does not consider Thanksgiving to be a religious holiday, and that even if one lived in a society where there are some religious denominations that celebrate Thanksgiving "religiously" that would not be sufficient to make it a religious holiday, as it is clear that many secular people celebrate it. (39) Rabbi Henkin suggests that it would be a good thing occasionally to skip the Thanksgiving meal, as a way of indicating that this event is not a religious "obligation," but is merely permissive, and thus accommodate the stricture of Rabbi Feinstein. Rabbi Henkin concludes:
This, however, comes with one significant caveat, that Rabbi Henkin notes. As stated in Shulchan Aruch, it is clearly prohibited to celebrate even a completely secular holiday (such as the coronation of a king) with those Gentiles who are celebrating that "secular" day with religious observances. (41) However, one may join with a Gentile if one is certain that this particular Gentile does not worship in a manner or faith prohibited to Gentiles according to Jewish law. (42) Thus, even those authorities who would permit marking Thanksgiving with a meal would not permit doing so with Gentiles who are religiously celebrating the day. (The same is true for a birthday party, wedding or funeral.)
C. The Approach of Rabbi Hutner
An exactly opposite approach to the rulings of Rabbis Feinstein and Soloveitchik appears to have been taken by Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner. (43) Rabbi Hutner argues that it is obvious and apparent that -- whatever the merit of celebrating Thanksgiving the first time in the 1600's -- the establishment of an annual holiday that is based on the Christian calendar is, at the very least, closely associated with idol worship and thus prohibited. Rabbi Hutner argues that such a celebration becomes a "holiday" through the creation of an annual observance and celebrating Gentile holidays is obviously wrong. Rabbi Hutner concludes:
An analogous approach, albeit less certain of a prohibition, is adopted by Rabbi Menashe Klein who also rules that halacha prohibits the celebration of Thanksgiving. (45) Rabbi Klein notes that halacha divides Gentile rituals into two distinctly different categories. The first category is those things that Gentiles do out of silliness and irrationality. The second are those that are done for religious purposes or for purposes of immodesty. Rabbi Klein then cites the Gra, who rules that Gentile customs and law that have no Jewish basis should be avoided because they might have an origin in the idolatrous customs of the past. (46) Rabbi Klein then states:
Rabbi Klein thus strongly discourages and perhaps forbids the celebration of Thanksgiving. (48)
A similar view is expressed by Rabbi David Cohen (of Gvul Yavetz), who writes:
D. Summation of the Approaches
In sum, three premier authorities of the previous generation have taken three conflicting views. Rabbi Hutner perceived Thanksgiving as a Gentile holiday, and thus prohibited any involvement in the holiday. Rabbi Soloveitchik permitted the celebration of Thanksgiving and permitted eating turkey on that day. He ruled that Thanksgiving was not a religious holiday, and saw no problem with its celebration. Rabbi Feinstein adopted a middle ground. He maintained that Thanksgiving was not a religious holiday; but nonetheless thought that there were problems associated with "celebrating" any secular holiday. Thus, while he appears to have permitted eating turkey on that day, he would discourage any annual "celebration" (50) that would be festival-like.
Issues Related to Celebrating Thanksgiving
The issue of adding a day of celebration to the Jewish calendar is referred to by both Rabbis Feinstein and Hutner and deserves elaboration. Rabbi Hutner asserts that the dating of such a holiday through the Christian calendar is clear evidence that such a holiday is "Gentile" in nature and thus prohibited. (51) Rabbi Feinstein understands this problem differently. Rabbi Feinstein maintains that there are specific halachic problems associated with adding holidays to the Jewish calendar, independent of whether they are "secular", "Jewish," or "gentile." Indeed, these types of objections have been raised to the modern observances of Yom Hasho'a, Yom Ha'atzmaut, and Yom Yerushalayim, and have nothing necessarily to do with the presence of a Gentile origin. There is an extensive literature on this issue with many different opinions advanced.
Some authorities maintain, as Rabbi Feinstein appears to do, that it is absolutely prohibited to add holidays to the calendar as an annual observance. (52) These authorities rule that while individuals can annually celebrate such events on the day that they happen, these celebrations never get incorporated in the general Jewish calendar, and it is prohibited to do so. Others maintain that such events can only be incorporated in the calendar after they receive unanimous (perhaps multi-generational) rabbinic sanction. (53) Yet others rule that every Jewish society can incorporate these days of thanksgiving (or mourning) to reflect significant manifestations of God's will toward the community. (54) Yet others limit this to rituals that require no specialized blessings, and are technically permitted all year round. (55) No consensus has developed on this issue and each community follows its own custom on this issue. (56)
However, in this author's opinion, a strong case can be made that this dispute is not really applicable to the way Thanksgiving is, in fact, celebrated in America, and that even those who flatly prohibit any additions to the Jewish calendar are not referring to the festivities of American Independence Day, Thanksgiving or Labor Day. Rather, these authorities are referring to the highly ritualized religious expressions of thanks to God that accompany days of religious observance, such as the services on Yom Ha-atzma'ut or the like. Thanksgiving, like Independence Day and Labor Day, lacks any ritualized prayer component, formal activities of any kind, obligatory liturgy or a festival (mo'ed) attitude. (57) Even the holiday meal that many eat is not obligatory under American law. (58) Given the way that the completely secular (59) holidays are celebrated in this era in America, one would not think that any of them -- including Thanksgiving -- is an additional "festival" in the Jewish calendar. (60) Under this approach, Rabbi Feinstein's caveat would only limit the ritualized celebration of Thanksgiving. (61) Indeed, it is precisely this type of limitation on "celebration" that Rabbi Feinstein seems to be calling for, and which Rabbi Henkin endorses. (62)
One other issue is worth noting. All three of these authorities appear to agree that the celebration of a one-time day of thanksgiving to mark the first time an event worthy of thanks occurs, is not problematic. (63) Thus, for example, President Bush declared a day of thanksgiving in 1991 in response to the victory in the Persian Gulf war (64) and it would not be problematic according to any of these opinions to mark that one-time event with some form of a celebration. Indeed, as noted by Rabbi Feinstein, there is some talmudic precedent for that form of thanksgiving. (65)
Three conclusions to this article are worth noting:
Three basic approaches are taken by contemporary decisors (poskim) on the question of celebrating Thanksgiving. Some rule that Thanksgiving is not a Gentile holiday, but yet limit "celebration." They would, apparently, permit eating a turkey meal. Others prohibit any form of involvement in Thanksgiving, as they rule it a Gentile holiday. Yet others view the day no different from Independence Day and allow any celebration appropriate for a secular observance.
Indeed, there remains a basic dispute that permeates this review and divide contemporary American halachic authorities of the last seventy five years. The relevant issue is whether it is appropriate to distinguish between "secular society", "Gentile society" and "idol-worshiping society" in modern American culture. The validity of this distinction -- which was not generally made by the decisors of Eastern Europe two hundred years ago for the society of that time and place -- is extremely relevant to a broad variety of halachic issues related to contemporary American society.
Like many areas of Jewish law where there is a diversity of legitimate approaches, individuals should follow the practices of their community, family or rabbi, all-the-while respecting and accepting as halachicly permissible other community's practices. It is for the ability to respect and accept as legitimate the conduct of fellow observant Jews -- sanctioned by rabbinic authority -- that true thanksgiving to the Almighty is needed.
This article has so far avoided any discussion of normative halacha. Such cannot, however, be avoided, at least in a conclusion. It is my opinion that this article clearly establishes that: (1) Thanksgiving is a secular holiday with secular origins; (2) while some people celebrate Thanksgiving with religious rituals, the vast majority of Americans do not; (3) halacha permits one to celebrate secular holidays, so long as one avoids doing so with people who celebrate them through religious worship and (4) so long as one avoids giving the celebration of Thanksgiving the appearance of a religious rite (either by occasionally missing a year or in some other manner making it clear that this is not a religious duty) the technical problems raised by Rabbi Feinstein and others are inapplicable.
Thus, halacha law permits one to have a private Thanksgiving celebration with one's Jewish or secular friends and family. For reasons related to citizenship and the gratitude we feel towards the United States government, I would even suggest that such conduct is wise and proper.
It has been recounted that some marking of Thanksgiving day was the practice of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, thus adding force to our custom of noting the day in some manner.
Elsewhere in this article it is recounted that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik would reschedule shiur on Thanksgiving day, so that shiur started earlier, and ended earlier, allowing the celebration of Thanksgiving. It is important to note the Torah study was not canceled, or even curtailed. Rather, the day was rearranged to allow for a full compliment of Torah, hand in hand with the requisite "civil celebrations." That too is an important lesson in how we should mark Thanksgiving.
Torah learning must be an integral part of what we do, and how we function. Sometimes, because of the needs of the times or our duties as citizens, we undertake tasks that appear to conflict with our need to study and learn Torah. But yet we must continue to learn and study. Thus, Rabbi Soloveitchik did not cancel shiur on Thanksgiving. We, too, should not forget that leson. Torah study must go on.
Collecting Candy on Halloween
Harmless Pastime or Halachic Prohibition?
Halloween in History
Applying the principles explained above to determine whether it permitted to celebrate Halloween requires that one first explore the origins of Halloween as a holiday. As developed below, this is a classical case where the application of the same rules to different sets of facts leads to a different rule of halacha.
A recent newspaper article recounted:
As was noted by Professor John Hennig, in his classical article on this topic, there is a clear historical relationship between the Celtic concepts of resurrection, Roman Catholic responses to it, and the modern American holiday of Halloween. (67)
Thus, Halloween, unlike Thanksgiving, plainly has in its origins religious beliefs that are foreign to Judaism, and whose beliefs are prohibited to us as Jews.
On the other hand, notwithstanding the origins of Halloween, one must recognize that the vast majority of the people in America who currently celebrate Halloween do not do so out of any sense of religious observance or feeling. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find a religion in the United States that recognize Halloween as a religious holiday. One recent writer, responding to Christian assertions that Halloween celebrations are a form of pagan worship, wrote:
This statement appears to be a truthful recounting of the modern American celebration of Halloween. The vast majority of people who celebrate Halloween have absolutely no religious motives at all -- it is an excuse to collect candy or engage in mischievous behavior.
However, it is worth noting that there are still some people who celebrate Halloween religiously, and there are occasional court cases about employees who seek to take religious leave on Halloween day as a religious holiday. (69)
Thus, the question about Halloween is whether Jewish law allows one to celebrate an event that has pagan origins, where the pagan origins are still known and celebrated by a very few, but not by the vast majority of people who engage in this activity.
Halloween and Halacha
In order to answer this question, a certain background into the nature of the prohibition to imitate Gentile customs must be understood. As explained above (70) Tosafot understands that two distinctly different types of customs are forbidden by the prohibition of imitating Gentile customs found in Leviticus 18:3. The first is idolatrous customs and the second is foolish customs found in the Gentile community, even if their origins are not idolatrous. (71) Rabbenu Nissim (Ran) and Maharik disagree and rule that only customs that have a basis in idolatrous practices are prohibited. Apparently foolish -- but secular -- customs are permissible so long as they have a reasonable explanation (and are not immodest). (72) Normative halacha follows the ruling of the Ran and Maharik. As noted by Rama:
Rabbi Isserless is thus clearly prohibiting observing customs that have pagan origins, or even which might have pagan origins. His opinion, the most lenient found in normative halacha, is the one we follow. (74)
Of course, independent of the halachic obligation to avoid Gentile religious customs, Jewish law forbids a Jew from actually celebrating idolatrous religious events himself. (75)
Based on this, in order to justify candy collection on halloween, one would have to accepts the truthfulness of any of the following assertions:
1] Halloween celebrations have a secular origin.
2] The conduct of the individuals "celebrating Halloween" can be rationally explained independent of Halloween.
3] The pagan origins of Halloween or the Catholic response to it are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations con be attributed to some secular source or reason.
4] The activities memorialized by Halloween are actually consistent with the Jewish tradition.
I believe that none of these statements are true.
Applying these halachic rules to Halloween leads to the conclusion that participation in Halloween celebrations -- which is what collecting candy is when one is wearing a costume -- is prohibited. Halloween, since it has its origins in a pagan practice, and lacks any overt rationale reason for its celebration other than its pagan origins or the Catholic response to it, is governed by the statement of Rabbi Isserless that such conduct is prohibited as its origins taint it. (76) One should not send one's children out to trick or treat on Halloween, or otherwise celebrate the holiday.
The question of whether one can give out candy to people who come to the door is a different one, as there are significant reasons based on darchai shalom (the ways of peace), eva (the creation of unneeded hatred towards the Jewish people) and other secondary rationales that allow one to distribute candy to people who will be insulted or angry if no candy is given. This is even more so true when the community -- Jewish and Gentile -- are unaware of the halachic problems associated with the conduct, and the common practice even within many Jewish communities is to "celebrate" the holiday. Thus, one may give candy to children who come to one's house to "trick or treat" if one feels that this is necessary.
1. Two different types of "celebration" are discussed. The first, and most significant, is the eating of a festive holiday meal with turkey and other forms of activity directly celebrating the day (such as attending a parade). The second is a lesser form of celebration: the intentional scheduling of other types of celebratory events -- such as weddings -- on Thanksgiving to take advantage of the fact that many do not work. Similar to that is the practice of changing the time of daily prayer service to acknowledge this day as one in which people do not normally work.
2. The Appendix will discuss whether turkey is a kosher bird fit for consumption throughout the year.
3. The celebration of Canadian Thanksgiving is a different issue from that of its American cousin. Canada celebrated its first Thanksgiving in 1572, but the date of its modern Thanksgiving observance was not fixed until 1957, when the second Monday in October (the same day as American Columbus day) was agreed on. There still is no common agreement on the appropriate food to eat, and large numbers of individuals simply do not celebrate the holiday, even in Canada. Indeed, there are some provinces that do not treat it as a holiday. For more on this, see Julianne Margvelashvili, "Thanksgiving, the Canadian Way," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 9, 1994 at section B1. The halachic issues involved are thus different.
4. Such as the Boston Thanksgiving celebration of February 22, 1630. As will be discussed in text accompanying note 63, the question of whether it would have been permissible for a Jew to join with the colonists in these spontaneous celebrations is an issue different from whether one may celebrate Thanksgiving now.
5. This history of Thanksgiving is taken from R. & A, Linton, We Gather Together: The Story of Thanksgiving at pages 72-85 (1949).
6. 1 Annals of Cong. 914 (1789).
7. See J. Richardson, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1:64. Washington continued, stating:
8. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson strongly objected to these pronouncements. He wrote:
Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.
A. Lipscomb ed., Writings of Thomas Jefferson 11:429 (1904).
9. New York State attempted to revive the holiday of Thanksgiving in 1795. However, this attempt failed because of a basic disagreement between various commercial interests over when the holiday should be celebrated.
Southern states, for many years before 1846, issued Thanksgiving day proclamations, many of which were overtly Christian, and which raised considerable protests from the Jewish community. For example:
When James H. Hammond, governor of South Carolina, announced a day of "Thanksgiving, Humiliation, and Prayer" in 1844, he ... exhorted "our citizens of all denominations to assemble at their respective places of worship, to offer up their devotions to God their Creator, and his Son Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world." The Jews of Charleston protested, charging Hammond with "such obvious discrimination and preference in the tenor of your proclamation, as amounted to an utter exclusion of a portion of the people of South Carolina." Hammond responded that "I have always thought it a settled matter that I lived in a Christian land! And that I was the temporary chief magistrate of a Christian people. That in such a country and among such a people I should be, publicly, called to an account, reprimanded and required to make amends for acknowledging Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of the world, I would not have believed possible, if it had not come to pass".
M. Borden, Jews, Turks, and Infidels 142 n.2 (1984). Such overtly Christian proclamations have not been signed since 1860.
10. Roughly parallel to the modern Ladies Home Journal.
11. There was some controversy concerning the proper date for Thanksgiving, as in 1934 President Roosevelt switched the day of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the second-to-last Thursday in November when November has five weeks. This was done to change the nation's shopping pattern and increase spending. While some objected to this mercantile approach to the holiday, Roosevelt -- and mercantilism -- triumphed and Thanksgiving has been celebrated in the second to last week of November since that year.
12. 673 F.Supp. 1524 (D. Haw. 1987)
13. Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984); Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573 (1989).
14. This is noted quite clearly by Rabbi Menashe Klein, Mishnah Halacha 10:116, discussed infra.
15. This article uses the term "turkey" to refer to the species of bird ornithologists classify as Meleagris gallopavo. There is another type of turkey called ocellated turkey (Agriocharis ocellata) common in southwestern America and Mexico whose status as a kosher bird cannot be verified by this writer. The Austrian turkey, the brush turkey, the water turkey and the turkey vulture are not considered kosher birds and are not species of turkey at all. The modern English name "turkey" comes from the mistaken British belief that this bird was somehow related to the "guinea fowl" of Islamic ("turkish") lands. For more on turkeys, see "Turkey," Encyclopedia Britannica 12:58-59 (15th ed., 1991).)
Throughout this article it is assumed that the eating of turkey is generally permitted throughout the year; indeed, the current practice of nearly all Jews is to treat turkey as a kosher bird. A close examination of the halachic literature reveals that this was by no means accepted by all authorities at all times. Obviously, if one were to conclude that turkey is not a kosher bird, that would have a significant impact on one's ability to eat it on Thanksgiving. (The problem of the permissibility of eating turkey is compounded by the fact that the Yiddish and German term for "guinea fowl" (perlahener) is sometimes mistranslated as "turkey." Thus, while the translator of the German words in the Bar-Ilan CD-Rom Responsa collection notes that Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann in Melamed LeHoil 2:15 is discussing the permissibility of eating turkey when he is discussing the perlahener, in fact he is discussing the eating of guinea fowl, as is made clear by his reference to Chatam Sofer OC 127 (as well as consultations with various Yiddish and German dictionaries). Most authorities agree with Rabbi Hoffmann that guinea fowl is not a kosher bird, although that too is disputed.)
Turkey was first discovered in America in the early sixteenth century and was brought to Europe as a product of trade with the new land. It was at first thought to be the larger American version of the European chicken. (This explains its modern Hebrew name, (tarnagolet hodu) and its modern Yiddish name (hendika hen), both of which mean "Indian" chicken as "India" was what Columbus thought he had discovered, and for many years products of the new world were called "Indian products" e.g. "Indian corn.") At the time that turkey was first introduced into Jewish communities in Europe, a number of authorities thought that it was not appropriate to eat this bird, as Rabbi Moshe Isserless (Rama) rules that one does not eat birds that lack a tradition of being kosher, even if they have the general indicia of being a kosher bird; Yoreh Deah 82:3. This was even more true for turkey, as it was not clear if they, in fact, had the general indicia of being kosher.(For a discussion of what these factors are, see Yoreh Deah 82:1-3.) It is worth noting that the Encyclopedia Britannica (at 12:58) states that wild turkeys are sometimes carnivorous, although domestic turkeys no longer are. Thus, no less an authority than Rabbi Shlomo Kluger rules that turkey may not be eaten and lacks the tradition of being a kosher bird; see Beit Shlomo Yoreh Deah 1:144 and the sources cited in Darchai Teshuva YD 82:34. However, the vast majority of halachic authorities, after examining turkeys and their habitats, concluded that turkeys do in fact have the indicia of being a kosher bird and are included in the tradition of being a kosher animal; see, for example Divrai Chaim YD 2:45; Iggerot Habosem 16; Maharam Shick YD 98-100; and the lengthy discussion in Darchai Teshuva 82:31,34-35. Turkey's mesorah as kosher was subsumed under the mesorah of chickens, geese or ducks.
The normative practice in America -- adhered to by all of the major kosher certification organizations and the vast overwhelming majority of observant Jews -- is to consider turkey to be a kosher bird fit for consumption throughout the year according to Jewish law.
16. For elaboration on this issue, see Rabbi Tzvi Teichman, "The Jew in a Gentile Society: Chukat Ha'Akum" 3 Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 64-85 (1981).
17. Tosafot Avodah Zara 11a ve'ei. Tosafot, and all of the other authorities discussed in this section are resolving a tension between the talmud here and in Sanhedren 52b.
18. Ran, commenting on Avodah Zarah 11a yisrael and Chidushai HaRan on Sanhedren 52b; Maharik, Responsa 58.
19. Rama YD 178:1.
20. Gra YD 178:7. For a review of the authorities who disagree with the Gra, see Seride Esh 3:93.
21. For a discussion of why halacha historically discusses the idolatrous practices of "Indian" faiths, see the star footnote in the Mishnah Berurah 330:8, the prefatory remarks of Rabbi Chaim Cohen in Divrai Geonim and the extremely illuminating remarks of Rabbi Bleich on "self-censorship" and avoidance of "imposed censorship" through the mechanism common in Eastern European works of discussing the practices of the "observant Jews" and "idolatrous Gentiles" of "India" found in Rabbi J. David Bleich, "Extraditing Jews," Techumin 8:297, 301-302 (5747).
22. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 147:6-9. The issue of how much assistance is permissible in cases where the violation will occur whether or not the Jew assists is beyond the scope of this article. For more on that, see my "Assisting in a Violation of Noachide Law" forthcoming in the Jewish Law Association Conference Volume: The Jerusalem Conference.
23. Yoreh Deal 147:4-7.
24. What others will think.
25. The status of New Year's Day has changed in the last three hundred years. In contemporary America there is little religious content or expression to New Year's Day, and while there might be many problems associated with the way some celebrate it, few would classify it as a religious holiday. However, Terumat Hadeshen 195, writing nearly five hundred years ago classifies New Years as a religious holiday and this is quoted by Rama YD 148:12. Terumat Hadeshen discusses whether one may give a New Year's Day gift and refers to January First as "the eighth day of Christmas." He clearly understands the holiday as religious in nature and covered by the prohibition of assisting a Gentile in his worship. (The text of the common edition of the Shulchan Aruch here has undoubtedly been subject to considerable censorship; for an accurate rendition of the Rama, see the Rama's Darchai Moshe in the new edition of the Tur published by Machon Yerushalyim.)
26. Iggerot Moshe, Even Haezer 2:13.
27. Rabbi Feinstein cites Megillah 7 and Nachmanidies (Ramban), commenting on Deuteronomy 4:2.
28. Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:11(4).
29. Thus, for example, this author suspects that Rabbi Feinstein would feel it not problematic to note Thanksgiving -- like Labor Day, Independence Day, and Memorial Day are noted -- on synagogue calendars as a secular "holiday." Indeed, Thanksgiving Day (along with Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Election Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day) are all noted in the Ezras Torah calendar published under Rabbis Feinstein's (and Henkin's) auspices. (New Years Day and Christmas Day are not.) So too, this author suspects that Rabbi Feinstein would permit teaching about Thanksgiving to school children as part of their general studies curriculum, just as he would permit Columbus to be discussed.
30. Rabbi Feinstein, supra note 28.
31. Iggerot Moshe OC 5:20(6).
32. Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 4:12. This teshuva was written in response to a questioner who noted that the analysis found in Iggerot Moshe OC 5:20(6), Iggerot Moshe YD 4:11(4), and Iggerot Moshe EH 2:13 seem to be at tension one with the other. Indeed, to resolve the matter in any way other than the one Rabbi Feinstein himself does requires a re-understanding of a number of teshuvot written by Rabbi Feinstein dealing with secular customs that have no religious origins -- activity that Rabbi Feinstein has repeatedly ruled permissible throughout his life.
33. In a letter to this author dated 5, parshat devarim 5754.
34. In Revavot Ephraim on Yoreh Deah.
35. Indeed, it is clear from Rabbi Greenblatt's letter that he feels that Rabbi Feinstein agrees with his ruling, in that he references to the fact that he was the questioner to both Rabbi Feinstein and Rabbi Klein and that only one of them does not agree with him. As will be made clear from Rabbi Klein's responsa, he certainly does not agree that celebration is permitted.
36. See the Appendix for more on this issue.
37. Rabbi Howard Jachter of Brooklyn notes that he explicitly spoke to Rabbi Soloveitchik about this in July 1985 and that Rabbi Soloveitchik affirmed this ruling and did not see any problem with celebrating Thanksgiving. Dr. Avi Feldblum of Highland Park, NJ also confirmed to this author that he heard such a ruling from Rabbi Soloveitchik, as did Dr. Marc Shapiro of Boston.
38. Dr. Avi Feldblum recounted:
While I do not know whether Rabbi Soloveitchik had turkey for dinner that night or whether he called it a Thanksgiving dinner, it was well known that on the day that is marked on the calendar as Thanksgiving, Rav Soloveitchik started shiur much earlier than usual, in order to end earlier than usual and catch the plane back to Boston, to have a festive meal etc. However, it is of interest to note that while Thanksgiving appeared to be of sufficient importance to change the fixed time for shiur, it was not sufficient to end shiur if the Rav had not completed what he wanted to understand. On Thanksgiving 1976, there was the famous Thanksgiving shiur where the Rav spent about five hours (most of it in silent thought) working through one tosafot. After the second or third time the shamash passed him a note about the flight [back to Boston], the Rav turned to him and said "no one can leave here until we have understood what it is that Tosafot is saying!"
Letter of Dr. Avi Feldblum, published electronically in mail.jewish, volume 5, issue 20 available in archives at email@example.com.
39. Part of the underlying dispute might concern whether Jewish law accepts the opinion of the Gra that customs that have secular origins are prohibited. As noted above, Gra YD 178:7 rules that such customs are prohibited. Rabbi Henkin, in his teshuvot, Benai Banim 2:30 demonstrates that this is not the normative halachic approach, which is to maintain that absent idolatrous origins, such customs are not suspect. The validity of many secular practices most likely hinges on the resolution of this dispute.
A secondary dispute is also present as to whether the act of commemoration for the survival of the nation is "nonsense" or not. Rabbi David Cohen writes that "The aspect of a law of craziness and nonsense (
40. Letter of Rabbi Henkin, dated 23 Tevet 5755. Rabbi Henkin notes that it is not prohibited to delay the time of morning services to reflect the fact that many are off from work on Thanksgiving. However, on a legal holiday that is also a Gentile religious holiday -- such as December 25 -- he advises that it is better to ignore the secular holiday for scheduling purposes. Rabbi David Cohen writes that it is best not to change the time of prayer, even on Sunday, and certainly to do so on a Gentile holiday is frowned on; Letter of Rabbi David Cohen, dated 9 Nissan 5755.
41. Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 148:6.
42. Shulchan Aruch 148:5. See also comments of Beit Yosef on Tur, Yoreh Deah 148 s.v. ubegoy shemakirin be she'ano oved avodah zara, hacol mutar.
43. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak: Iggerot umechtavim shel Harav Hutner (5751), 109. The word "appears" is appropriate because it is from the title of the letter (which was not written by Rabbi Hutner, but by the editor) that it is clear that Rabbi Hutner is dealing with Thanksgiving. Since this volume of Rabbi Hutner's was published posthumously, it is possible that the letter was in fact in reference to some other event. Indeed, Rabbi David Cohen (of Gvul Yavetz) writes:
Once I heard from my teacher Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner "
44. A similar type of argument can be found, relating to a different holiday, in Kovetz Iggrot Me'at HaChazon Ish, 97.
45. Mishnah Halacha 10:116.
46. Gra YD 178:7.
47. Mishna Halacha 10:116. There seem to be two completely different issues raised by Rabbi Klein. The first is the problem posed by the celebration by Jews of idolatrous holidays. The second is the problems of imitating Gentile customs. It is important to realize that these two issues are quite separate and distinct. The first is discussed on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 148 and the second in Yoreh Deah 178. Conceptually, the two issues are unrelated.
48. Rabbi Klein, writing to Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt who posed the question, states that he would withdraw his response if the approach of Rabbi Feinstein on this issue were known. It is unclear how the recent publication in Am Hatorah of the opinion of Rabbi Feinstein, discussed above, would affect the ruling of Rabbi Klein.
49. Letter of Rabbi David Cohen, dated 9 Nissan 5755.
Rabbi Feivel Cohen also writes that halacha prohibits the celebration of Thanksgiving; undated letter to this writer received Nissan 5755. He indicates that, in his opinion, based on the language of Rambam, Malachim 10:9, there is a significant problem when a Gentile celebrates this holiday, as that Gentile has the status of one who observes a day of rest and it is as if he observed his own festival, both of which are prohibited according to Rambam for a Gentile. Such a holiday, Rabbi Cohen writes, is created by Thanksgiving, which is an attempt by a Gentile to create a special day of festivities, and thus prohibited. Indeed, in Rabbi Cohen's opinion, even if there is no difference between Thanksgiving and Independence Day, both are prohibited festivals, as Gentiles may not add festive days to the calendar.
In this author's opinion, the argument that Thanksgiving celebrations are prohibited to Gentiles by Malachim 10:9 is not persuasive. Even if Thanksgiving is a holiday in the American law sense, it is not at all clear that the manner of celebration one sees in America fits into the halachic category of festival (mo'ed) or of resting (shabbat), rather than a mere commemoration. Thus, for example, the prohibition of a Gentile observing Shabbat is obviated even by slight deviations from the rules of keeping Shabbat by the Gentile; for more on this, see Rabbi J. David Bleich "Observance of Shabbat by Prospective Proselytes" Tradition 25(3) 46-62 (1991). One could easily claim that the same is true for a Gentile having a Thanksgiving observance, which bears no resemblance to the way the Jewish tradition celebrated festivals.
50. The question of observing or attending a Thanksgiving day parade can only be answered after one decides what is the status of the day itself. Applying the three positions developed above to parades, one observes that:
1) If one rules that Thanksgiving is a Gentile holiday, it would be prohibited to participate or benefit in any way from the parade honoring the day.
2) If one maintains that Thanksgiving is not a Gentile holiday, but prohibited because of the rule against Gentile customs, observing the parade would not be prohibited, as observing parades is not irrational; even then, however, care must be exercised, lest people be taught to observe such customs generally. (Letter of Rabbi Cohen, dated 9 Nissan 5755.)
3) If one concludes that Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, with a rational basis in national rescue, and thus may be celebrated, there would seem to be no problem in attending a parade, as a Thanksgiving day parade is no different from an Independence Day parade.
51. To this writer, Rabbi Hutner's proof could be disputed, as it proves too much: it would also "prove" that Independence Day, Labor Day, V-E day, Washington's Birthday, and the many other clearly secular holidays observed by Americans throughout the year -- based on the Christian/secular calendar -- are really "Gentile" holidays. Such seems counter-intuitive. In addition, it would seem that Thanksgiving is an extremely poor example of the phenomena that Rabbi Hutner is criticizing, as Thanksgiving does not have a fixed date on the secular calendar -- rather it is the fourth Thursday of the month of November, whatever date that happens to be. Indeed, Congress could move the date to July if it so voted.
52. This is clear stated by Rabbi Hutner above and can also be found in Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, Teshuvot veHanhagot 2:721.
53. See e.g. Kovetz Iggerot Chazon Ish 97.
54. Rabbi Herzog, Pesakim Umechtavim shel harav Herzog OC 99-100 and 104; Rabbi Unterman, Shevet Meyehuda 2:58.
55. For an example of this, see Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yabia Omer OC 6:41-42
56. For a review essay on the various issues see, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Nariah, "Adding Days of Joy to the Jewish Calendar" 3 Hatorah VehaMedinah 77-85 (2nd ed. Tzomet, 5752).
57. It is important to realize that such was not always the case in the United States. In the early 1950's, in response to the perceived threat of "godless communism", "prayer books" containing rituals and pseudo-religious quot;reflections" on the various American "holidays" were published in order to encourage the ritualization of the celebration. For an example of this, see Mordecai Kaplan, Paul Williams and Eugene Kohn, The Faith of America: Prayers Reading, and Songs for the Celebration of American Holidays (New York, 1951).
58. Nor for that matter is the Independence Day cookout or the Veteran's Day parade obligatory.
59. Besides Thanksgiving, they are: Martin Luthur King Day (celebrating the birthday of the civil rights leader), President's Day (celebrating the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington), Memorial Day (commemorating those who have died fighting for this country), Independence Day (celebrating the establishment of the Union), Labor Day (celebrating worker's rights), Columbus Day (marking the day Columbus discovered America), and Veterans Day (celebrating the end of the two World Wars).
60. In this significant way, these American holidays are markedly different from their Israeli counterparts, which more clearly appear to be additions to the Jewish calendar. This article is not the place for a full and complete discussion of the significance of the establishment of the State of Israel and the proper halachic responses to it. Rather the purpose of this section is to note that this issue is not relevant when discussing halachic issues involved in celebrating modern American secular holidays.
61. Consistent with this is Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin's proposal (found in the previous section) that one skip the Thanksgiving meal every couple of years to indicate that this is not a religious ritual. He, too, feels that these ritualization concerns are what Rabbi Feinstein is referring to.
62. In this author's opinion, it is quite possible that the changes in American society and sociology since the 1950's account for the differences between Rabbi Feinstein's first responsum in 1953 and his second in 1980. When Rabbi Feinstein first addressed this topic in 1953, Thanksgiving was not a religious holiday, but there were those who wanted to make it one (see note 57 for a discussion of this). Thus, Rabbi Feinstein thought pious people should be strict on this matter. By 1981 that movement had completely disappeared from the American scene, thus eliminating even the possibility that one might think this a religious holiday, and thus Rabbi Feinstein does not indicate in his later teshuva that pious people should be strict on this matter.
63. It is not clear that Rabbi Hutner would agree to that, although a close reading of the letter does imply that.
64. For a discussion of this, see California School Employees Association v. Governing Board of the Marin Community College District, 33 Cal.Rptr.2d 109 (1994).
65. See text accompanying note 27.
66. Paul Prather, Halloween is Pagan in Origin, But Life Goes On, Lexington Herald Leader, October 26, 1991, page B1.
67. See John Hennig, The Meaning of All The Saints, Medieval Studies 10:147-161 (1948).
68. Cheryl S. Clark, Halloween Atlanta Constitution, October 22, B1 (1995).
69. See for example, Van-Koten v. Family Health Management Corporation, 955 F.Supp. 898 (N.D. Ill., 1997)
70. See Part II:A.
71. Tosafot Avodah Zara 11a ve'ei. Tosafot, and all of the other authorities discussed in this section are resolving a tension between the talmud here and in Sanhedren 52b.
72. Ran, commenting on Avodah Zarah 11a yisrael and Chidushai HaRan on Sanhedren 52b; Maharik, Responsa 58.
73. Rama YD 178:1.
74. For more on this, see Part II:A-C.
75. Yoreh Deal 147:4-7.
76. Those who are strict for the opinions of either Tosafot or Gra certainly prohibit this activity also.