Hi, I’m MaNishtana.
Here we are, nearly at the end of November, which means I get asked one or all of the following three questions:
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”
“Your family doesn’t do Thanksgiving?!”
“Why don’t you do Thanksgiving??”
To which my half-shrug reply usually is:
To non-Jews: “We’re Jewish. We have enough holidays. Why add more?”
To Jews: “Don’t we have enough holidays? Why add more?”
And actually, until moving to the Midwood area, the concept of Jews celebrating Thanksgiving was completely foreign to me. As was the concept of celebrating Halloween or 4th of July. Which got me to thinking: “Can Jews celebrate Thanksgiving? (And to a lesser extent 4th of July, Halloween, etc)?”
So here I present the condensed and Halachic (at least for us Orthos) opinion on the matter, compiled from a gajillion sources, pamphlets and websites. Grab some cocoa and snuggle up under a blanket, kids. This might take a while.
First and foremost, there is the Biblical injunction against imitating the customs of “the nations”, ie, non-Jews:
“After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances.” (Lev 18:3).
Generally this is interpreted as one of two opinions:
1-A prohibition against idolatrous customs and a prohibition against “foolish” non-Jewish customs even if they aren’t idolatrous in origin.
2-A prohibition only against customs with an idolatrous origin. Other non-Jewish customs are permissible so long as there’s a reasonable explanation and they’re not immodest.
And generally, halacha goes with the second opinion, as noted by the Rama:
“Those practices done as a [Gentile] custom or law with no reason, one suspects that it is an idolatrous practice or that there is a taint of idolatrous origins; however, those customs which are practiced for a reason, such as the physician who wears a special garment to identify him as a doctor, can be done; the same is true for any custom done out of honor or any other reason is permissible” (Rama YD 178:1)
Which pretty means yes to things like 4th of July, Veteran’s Day, and Father’s Day, but no to things like Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and—brace yourself—Mother’s Day.
Why not those days?
Well, Valentine’s and Patrick’s Day are “Saint” days, both obviously having Catholic origins and so get crossed off the list. Even if we argue they are divorced from their religious origins, there is already a Jewish “love” holiday—15th Av—and—even though a drinking-just-to-drink holiday is not the kind of debauchery to be religiously sanctioned—there are “holy” equivalents in Purim and Simchat Torah, thereby eliminating the need to celebrate either Valentine’s or St. Patty’s.
Halloween is a combination of the Celtic pagan holiday Samhain and the Catholic church’s reaction to it. Either way, the practices memorialized—communion with the dead, walking between bonfires for purification—are incompatible with and forbidden in Jewish tradition. Even if an attempt were made to divorce it from its pagan roots, there is still no rational reason to go from house to house dressed in costume to request candy on the last day of October. (However, it is allowed to give candy if only one feels it is necessary to prevent undue hostility if people will be angry or insulted.) Additionally, these are also practices which have a permissible equivalent in Purim and the various yahrzeit and Yizkor services throughout the year.
Mother’s Day—the surprise sleeper on the list—is actually derived from two non-sanctioned religious sources: the Roman Matronalia, dedicated to Juno, and Mothering Sunday, the 4th Sunday in Lent to honor the Virgin Mary and one’s “mother” church (the main church in the area). The rest of Mothering Sunday was used visiting family and giving gifts to one’s mother. This is dealt with slightly more leniently because, divorced from its non-Jewish roots, it still finds legitimacy as a day to honor one’s mother (despite the fact that this day too is unnecessary, as honoring one’s mother is a daily commandment).
So. Concerning Thanksgiving, the question is: Does it have non-sanctioned religious origins as a holiday?
The usual story behind Thanksgiving is that it commemorates the Pilgrims having successfully survived the harsh American winter. And the Pilgrims did commemorate this event. Once. On July 30, 1623. That’s not only not the modern November Thanksgiving, it’s also the middle of the summer, for those of us keeping score. There were similar “Holy crap, we survived another winter!” celebrations of “thanksgiving” throughout the 1600’s, none of them being the annual commemoration of the First Thanksgiving.
In the 1700’s, individual colonies would randomly designate a day of thanksgiving in honor of military victories, adoption of a state constitution, having a really good crop, or scoring a sweet new tricorn hat. Most often than not these days would be marked with prayer and fasting, not feasting and fighting one’s in-laws.
On November 26, 1789, George Washington declared a Thanksgiving that year, declaring the first national “Thanksgiving”, which, while rife with references to “G-d” and “L-rd” was absent often stating anything of “Jesus Christ” (as had the 1777 declaration of Thanksgiving). There was, however, the “in the year of our Lord 1789” at the end.
Thanksgivings were also declared in 1795, ‘98, ’99, 1814, and twice in 1815. It didn’t finally land annually or anywhere near where we know it know until 1863, when it was proclaimed an annual holiday by Abraham Lincoln on the final Thursday in November, also bereft of “Jesus Christ” references, and in 1934 it was moved to the fourth Thursday of November by Franklin Roosevelt to spur holiday shopping and increase spending.
That’s right. Thanksgiving is essentially what it is so people would spend more money. Almost sounds Jewish already. But is it halachically secular or religious?
According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein—who wrote his first responsum on the matter in 1953, 19 years after Thanksgiving officially became what it is today—the answer is “just” secular, because:
“Since it is clear that according to their religious law books this day is not mentioned as a religious holiday and that one is not obligated in a meal [according to Gentile religious law]…halakhah sees no prohibition in celebrating with a meal or with the eating of turkey.”
However, he does say that, “pious people should be strict” concerning days like Thanksgiving and New Year’s and it is nonetheless “prohibited to establish this as an obligation and religious commandment and it remains a voluntary celebration.”
Well, because of the prohibition against adding holidays to the Jewish calendar:
“Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” (Deut 4:2)
Such a prohibition becomes relevant when a celebration becomes a “holiday” through the creation of an annual observance. Therefore, this is a problem with celebrating not only any secular holiday every year, but also modern Jewish ones such as Yom Yerushalayim, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and Yom Hashoa. Modern Jewish holidays actually pose more of a problem than secular ones, because secular ones lack any ritualized prayer component, formal activities, or obligatory liturgy such as the recital of Hallel, in sharp contrast with modern Jewish ones.
However some leniency can be applied to Thanksgiving since it does not have a fixed date and changes from year to year.
Yeah, Thanksgiving is technically allowable. Should you avoid it? Probably. But if you don’t, just don’t do it every year.
Enjoy your turkey day, ppl. :D