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Celebrating Thanksgiving

By Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Haber

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.

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