Is Thanksgiving Kosher? Kosher, meaning “fit,” is Thanksgiving a Holiday celebration fit for a Jew? I don’t mean the meal itself, as certainly that can be made kosher, but I mean the entire celebration, which yes, revolves around the meal. (Celebration revolving around a meal? Sounds pretty Jewish to me, ha!) Is Thanksgiving, a holiday with non-Jewish origins, by default “un-Jewish”? The question of whether Jews should participate in Thanksgiving celebration has been up for halachic debate in the past. I will present you with the results of my research and what I conclude from it, but clearly I’m not a Rabbi and if you have a question of whether celebrating Thanksgiving is kosher for you as a Jew, please consult your local Orthodox Rabbi.
The basis for the debate or the question of whether Thanksgiving is Kosher, is found in the way different authorities interpret the commandment of b’chucoseichem or the Torah’s adjunction to not copy other people’s ways (found in Leviticus 18:3).
Now, what that clearly means, is a matter of debate in the Talmud. There are two interpretations that have been debated by the Sages of the Talmud about what does “copying other people’s ways” mean:
- Idolatrous customs, and
- Foolish customs found in the Gentile community, even if their origins are not idolatrous
All authorities agree that b’chukoseihem applies to copying other’s religious practices which extends to celebrating holidays with origins in other faiths (ie. Christmas, Ramadan etc.) And most authorities hold that foolish – but secular customs are permissible, so long as they have a reasonable explanation and are not immodest.
Yet, you will find some Jewish communities in America, even today, who do not celebrate Thanksgiving. One of the halachic authorities of the past generation who ruled against the observance of Thanksgiving was Rav Yitzhock Hunter (1906-1980). His position is that as an annual holiday established and based on the the Christian calendar, Thanksgiving is closely associated with idol worship and thus prohibited.
Don’t Put Away Your Bubbie’s Thanksgiving Menu, Just Yet
But, wait I’m not telling you to give up your turkey and pumpkin pie, yet. If you’re a fan of this Holiday and it’s traditions, it seems like you’re in luck, because there are other halachic authorities who do not consider the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday a violation of b’chucoseichem, as they deem Thanksgiving to be a purely secular holiday, with no religious or idolatrous origin. Among them are both Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895 – 1986) published four responsa (rabbinic rulings) on the issues related to celebrating Thanksgiving, all of which conclude that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday but a secular one.
Nonetheless, he prohibits taking the ongoing celebration as an obligation, as to avoid the prohibitions to add to the Jewish calendar and/or to add commandments. It seems however, 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.
In addition, he warns that the celebration would be prohibited if it was done with celebratory rituals associated with actually celebrating Thanksgiving, (perhaps of some religious significance), and not merely eating a meal.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) also agreed that Thanksgiving was not a Gentile holiday, and ruled that it was permissible to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. It is said that this was also the position of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik (1879-1942). It is said, that even though Rabbi Joseph B. Solovietchick may have suggested to his students that he was going to have a Thanksgiving meal with his family later in the day, he always held classes on the day of Thanksgiving.
So, if you’re a fan of turkey, pumpkin pie and all the other trimmings, you certainly have halachic authorities to rely on for your decision to partake of the Thanksgiving celebration. To most American Jews, even some of the most Orthodox Jews, there seems to be no question about the appropriateness of celebrating to Thanksgiving. They regard it as a secular holiday that represents American values that are honored by Judaism as well.
However, like many areas of Jewish law where there is a diversity of legitimate approaches:
- one should follow the practice of one’s community, family or Rabbi, and
- be respectful of Jews who choose not to celebrate this American tradition, even with the most kosher turkey.
Did I just mention kosher turkey? It’s not that hard to make a fully kosher Thanksgiving feast, so if you’re going to do it, I say go all out and make it kosher!
The Message of Thanksgiving
Here’s a beautiful clip, on what the Lubavitcher Rebbe says we should learn from the American Holiday of Thanksgiving:
Do you celebrate Thanksgiving? Tell me… I might need some recipes…
Related Post: Thanksgiving Tradition