As Diaspora Jews, having been through exile after harsh exile, and particularly in the post Holocaust generations, we are ever so thankful for the United States of America. Although each exile comes with its particular set of challenges and obstacles, the physical and financial security that we enjoy is not taken for granted.
One of the classic American ways of exhibiting that appreciation is by celebrating Thanksgiving. Once a year, Americans sit around the table and commemorate the first landing of the pilgrims on these shores. Although we too share in the appreciation, there are Halachic intricacies that are to be dealt with in celebrating Thanksgiving in the classical fashion.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, in a posthumously published volume of Igros Moshe, has a fascinating series of letters. Written over a two month span in 1981 he at first (OC 5:20:6) makes the case that it is forbidden to have a Thanksgiving celebration, because of the prohibition of ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו, you shall not walk in their statues, which includes any non-Jewish custom for which a logical reason cannot be attributed.
He firmly rejects the notion that there is any sort of prohibition of Idolatry, and he also rejects the opinion that it is forbidden to eat turkey because that’s what you happen to have available. However it is prohibited to have a joyous meal in honor of Thanksgiving because of the afore-mentioned prohibition.
Then, six weeks later, in a letter to a questioner who asked if he is permitted to join in a festive meal, Rav Moshe (YD 4:11:4) writes that it is permitted to join and to partake of the turkey so long as one doesn’t intend to have such a meal on this particular day every year, for then there may be a prohibition of בל תוסיף, adding a mitzvah to the Torah.
Here he mentions nothing of the prohibition to engage in an illogical no-Jewish custom, and concludes that celebrating Thanksgiving is permitted!
Two weeks later, in a third letter written to his grandson, who had questioned his apparent change of heart, he explained: The Rema, in explaining the prohibition, writes (YD 178:1) that anything which has no reason is considered to be Emorite ways and is forbidden. Rav Moshe explains that this statement of the Rema can be interpreted in two ways.
The first way to understand this is that it would be considered Emorite practice (who were very superstitious) to do something for no reason. Therefore the Torah prohibits anything that is done without good cause. Eating turkey on Thanksgiving, and making a whole shebang out of it because the Pilgrims had some turkey hundreds of years ago would be prohibited under this umbrella. This is what Rav Moshe intended in the first response.
Alternatively, we can explain the Rema differently. The reason we ascribe Emorite practice to illogical customs is because we are concerned that they originate in paganism and idol worship. Although now they are just senseless, we don’t want to partake in something which h has its roots in the worship of idols. However, in an instance that we know the root cause of a custom, even though we may deem the reasoning insufficient cause for celebration, the prohibition of ‘walking in their statues’ would not apply. And this, explains Rabbi Feinstein, is why in the second letter he was not concerned with this prohibition.
In conclusion Rav Moshe writes that it is appropriate to be stringent as he had written in the first letter.
umm, i really don’t understand what the letters ruled. The pilgrims did not have turkey to celebrate , they had a meal with the AmerIndians who were already there and who had helped them to establish a community. It was giving thanks to the AmerIndians -and- to G0D.
So what is the problem? It is not a baseless custom, it is to signify that there are things to be thankful for and for Jews it should be especially significant as it also shows one does not need a YomTov to express thanks to G0D for having a safe haven.
I was expecting that comment, and actually, was expecting it from you :). Someone asked something similar during the shiur I gave on this as well.
My understanding is that R’ Moshe was focusing more on the celebration revolving around the Turkey, and the celebrating that they had food, which is how he understood the main commemoration.
And indeed many historians see things the same way, and if you study the written accounts of the Plymouth Pilgrims they don’t reference safe haven, rather plentiful food, and turkeys.
Reb Moshe felt that this was not worthy of a holiday and therefore considered baseless from a halachic perspective.
Great article. In the interest of truth and accuracy I will point out that the first Thanksgiving meal took place down the road at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia.The service was led by captain John Woodleaf and it marked the safe landing of their ship December 4th, 1619. To quote the Berkeley Charter: “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
I read many divrei Torah and respect Torah Scholarship. However, I find the ideas expressed here somewhat idiotic. What ever happened to “the law of the land is the law”? What is wrong with joining with others to feel gratitude? What is wrong with eating a meal that harkens back to some sort of tradition? Of course this is not a torah or hallachic based holiday, but what is wrong with serving turkey (we are not talking about kashrut here? Does this mean that on the 4th of July (assumng it is not Shabbat) we should not have a cookout, watch fireworks, or go to a baseball game? Seriously – Rabbis Haber – I have respect for you, but can’t you find something more compelling than to suggest we not be grateful, that we not eat turkey, etc? Should we not vote on Election Day either? Please.
When our great-great-grandparents came to this land from Nova Odessa over one hundred years ago, they were so grateful to be here that they did not even consider not celebrating Thanksgiving. Unsure of some of parameters mentioned in the article, they – along with their fellow ‘Telzers’ – adopted the practice of eating a traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey and cranberry sauce on the last Shabbos of November. My brother and I are the fifth generation to carry on this custom and it is precisely because of the feelings of gratitude and identification that you mention. There have been years when I’ve had the meal on Thursday as well. I don’t see any harm in the exchange of ideas in the article.
To be very clear, I in no way indicated that we should not be grateful, or a lack of gratitude. This was a study of the laws of following in the ways of the nations, and would in fact arguably apply to the fourth of July celebrations as well, were one particular to celebrate then yearly in a specific manner.
This conversation has nothing to do with following the law of the land, voting, or otherwise being loyal to, or active in, the USA.
Maybe I would understand this better if it was applied to the 4th of July. Sorry Rabbi I just don’t understand. The best part of this article are the comments. ..Interesting history