Is Celebrating Thanksgiving Kosher, According to Jewish Law?
Dear Jew in the City –
Is it kosher to celebrate Thanksgiving since it’s a non-Jewish holiday?
A Kosher Turkey Fan
Dear Kosher Turkey Fan-
You’d think this would be a straightforward yes-or-no question. You’d be wrong. One of my all-time favorite theological quotes is from that profound modern-day philosopher of The Simpsons fame, Reverend Timothy Lovejoy: “Short answer, ‘yes’ with an ‘if;’ long answer, ‘no’ with a ‘but.'”
Many of the things we discuss depend on whom you ask. For example, whether chalav Yisroel milk (meaning that the cow was milked under Jewish supervision to ensure that it’s not, say, camel’s milk) is obligatory in our society or a stringency. According to the latter, M&M’s, Hershey bars, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and Entenmann’s cakes are all perfectly kosher. Those who follow the former position, however, would consider these things (and many more) to be non-kosher. That’s not to say that anyone is wrong per se; each group is following the rulings of their halachic decisors. By way of analogy, can a person turn right on red, open-carry a weapon and marry their first cousin? It all depends on where you live, as the legality of these things depends on the rulings of the local authorities.
The issue driving this question is a halacha called “b’chukoseihem” (Leviticus 18:3), where the Torah adjures us not to copy other nation’s ways. As with a number of other laws (such as “you shall be holy” – Leviticus 19:2), the parameters are not clearly defined, so the authorities are going to differ on some of the details.
We agree on this: we cannot copy other religions’ theological practices. It might occur to me to wear a black shirt with a white collar so that passersby could easily identify me as clergy but that is a decidedly non-Jewish practice. Decorating your home with an evergreen tree in December likewise carries theological implications. Everyone agrees that these things would be violations of “b’chukoseihem.”
Accordingly, we may not celebrate holidays with origins in other faiths. These include (but are not limited to) Christmas, Halloween, and St. Patrick’s Day. No matter how secular these days may have become, they continue to be religious in their roots. This would also be the case with the Hindu holiday Diwali and the Islamic Eid. If you’re inclined to fast for Ramadan in solidarity with your Muslim friends, your heart might be in the right place but it would be a violation of “b’chukoseihem.”
So, Thanksgiving may not be Jewish in origin but is that the same as being “non-Jewish?” Therein lies the crux of the matter. And in this the authorities differ. Rav Yitzchak Hutner ruled that any annual holiday established according to the Gregorian calendar is de facto a non-Jewish holiday and would be prohibited. He calls this conclusion “simple and obvious.” There are certainly those who follow this position but there are other, equally-great authorities who ruled otherwise.
Rav Moshe Feinstein addressed this question several times, always concluding that Thanksgiving is a secular rather than a religious holiday. While Thanksgiving may have (allegedly) been instituted by the Pilgrims (who were English Dissenters – a breakaway from the Church of England – and not Puritans per se), it was not instituted as a religious obligation. In other words, there were plenty of English Dissenters – and Puritans – back in Europe who did not observe this holiday. It fulfills no religion’s obligations to eat turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce on the Thursday preceding the last Saturday of November.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”) also ruled that Thanksgiving is a secular rather than a religious holiday and that it is permissible to eat turkey on that day. In fact, his students reported that he always held class on Thanksgiving but that he started and ended earlier than on other days so that he could fly home from New York to Boston, presumably to participate in a family meal.
There are other nuances of opinion, such as Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin, who advises skipping the Thanksgiving meal every few years in order to demonstrate that one does not consider it a religious duty. Rav Dovid Cohen rules against celebrating Thanksgiving not because it has non-Jewish religious connotations but because “b’chukoseihem” also prohibits doing things that have no rational basis, and feeling obligated to eat turkey on a random Thursday certainly qualifies. (However, Rav Cohen says, if a family wants to get together because they are off work and they happen to enjoy eating turkey, it’s certainly permissible to do so.) Even Rabbi Feinstein, who ruled that observing Thanksgiving is permitted, said that particularly pious individuals should refrain.
In short, there are a wide variety of positions but, since Thanksgiving is celebrated by Americans of all faiths and is of religious import to no particular denomination, it may be “not Jewish,” but that doesn’t make it “un-Jewish.” If one wants to eat turkey with all the trimmings, he certainly has who to rely upon (though one should always follow the advice of his own religious exemplars). The Thanksgiving feast need be no more religiously problematic than having a barbecue on the fourth of July. In this author’s opinion, observing Thanksgiving is far less problematic than celebrating New Year’s Day (also known as “Feast of the Circumcision of Christ,” “Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus” and “Octave of the Nativity,” among other names), a day with far more religious implication than Thanksgiving ever had.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent