A. The Approach of Rabbi Feinstein

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A. The Approach of Rabbi Feinstein
Rav Moses Feinstein (Hebrew: משה פיינשטיין‎; March 3, 1895 – March 23, 1986) was a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, scholar and posek (an authoritative adjudicator of questions related to Jewish law), who was world-renowned for his expertise in Halakha and was regarded by many as the de facto supreme halakhic authority for Orthodox Jewry of North America. In the Orthodox world he is widely referred to simply as "Reb Moshe", and his halakhic rulings are often referenced in contemporary rabbinic literature.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein has four published responsa on the issues related to celebrating Thanksgiving, all of which conclude that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, but a secular one. The first responsum, written in 1953/5723, discusses the deliberate scheduling of weddings and the like on religious holidays of other faiths. Rabbi Feinstein states:

  • On the question of celebrating any event on a holiday of Gentiles, if the holiday is based on religious beliefs [by the Gentiles], such celebrations are prohibited if deliberately scheduled on that day; even without intent, it is prohibited because of marit ayin (24) . . . The first day of year for them [January 1](25) and Thanksgiving is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [balai nephesh] should be strict. (26)

Rabbi Feinstein reinforces his understanding that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday in a responsum published in 1980/5741. He states:

  • On the issue of joining with those who think that Thanksgiving is like a holiday to eat a meal: 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] and since this is a day of remembrance to citizens of this country, when they came to reside here either now or earlier,halacha sees no prohibition in celebrating with a meal or with the eating of turkey. One sees similar to this in Kiddushin 66 that Yanai the king made a party after the conquest of kochlet in the desert and they ate vegetables as a remembrance.

  • Nonetheless it is prohibited to establish this as an obligation and religious commandment [mitzvah], and it remains a voluntary celebration now; in this manner -- without the establishment of obligation or religious commandment -- one can celebrate the next year too with a meal. But, I think, nonetheless it is prohibited to establish a fixed day in the year for the celebration and it is only in the first year of the event, like when Yanai conquered, and then they had a party, and not for permanence. There is also a problem of adding commandments . . . (27) Even though one can question the source, it is still a real prohibition. (28)

http://www.tfdixie.com/special/thanksg.htm - N_28_

Thus, Rabbi Feinstein appears to rule that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, and there is no problem of "Gentile holidays" while observing it. Nonetheless he prohibits its ongoing celebration as an obligation on a particular day because he feels that it is a prohibited addition to the Jewish calendar or creates a problem of adding commandments. While Rabbi Feinstein's objections to adding observances will be discussed later on, it is clear 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. (29)

As proof to the fact that Rabbi Feinstein rules eating turkey permissible, one sees that elsewhere in the same teshuva Rabbi Feinstein states:

  • Thus, it is obvious in my opinion, that even in a case where something would be considered a prohibited Gentile custom, if many people do it for reasons unrelated to their religion or law, but rather because it is pleasurable to them, there is no prohibition of imitating Gentile custom. So too, it is obvious that if Gentiles were to make a religious law to eat a particular item that is good to eat, halacha would not prohibit eating that item. So too, any item of pleasure in the world cannot be prohibited merely because Gentiles do so out of religious observance. (30)

Rabbi Feinstein then applies this principle to going bare-headed, and rules that even if some Gentiles do so out of religious fervor, since many people do so out of concerns for comfort, this is not considered a religious custom.

Rabbi Feinstein, in a recently published teshuva also written in 1980/5741, seems to state that in fact there is a prohibition to celebrate Thanksgiving, even though he acknowledges that Thanksgiving has no religious content. In this teshuva he views such celebratory activity on Thanksgiving as irrational, and thus prohibited as a form of imitating secular society. However, a close examination of that letter reveals that the only time Rabbi Feinstein would consider that conduct prohibited is if it was done with celebratory rituals associated with actually celebrating Thanksgiving, (perhaps reciting a text or singing a song), and not merely eating a meal. (31) Indeed, Rabbi Feinstein, in his fourth teshuva on this topic, clearly recognizes that even this is a stricture, as it is predicated on the approach which argues that secular rituals that have no religious origins are prohibited by the prohibition of imitating Gentiles (see the Introduction to this Part), which he states is not the normative halacha, but a mere stricture. In this teshuva, he states that the responsa block quoted above is to be considered the normative one.(32)

B. The Approach of Rabbi Soloveitchik

Joseph Ber (Yosef Dov, Yoshe Ber) Soloveitchik (February 27, 1903 – April 9, 1993) (Hebrew: יוסף דב הלוי סולובייצ'יק‎) was an American Orthodoxrabbi, Talmudist and modern Jewish philosopher. He was a descendant of the Lithuanian Jewish Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. As a Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York City, The Rav, as he came to be known, ordained close to 2,000 rabbis over the course of almost half a century. He is widely viewed as having advocated the compatibility of Torah scholarship and Western, academic scholarship as well as positive involvement with the broader community. He served as an advisor, guide, mentor, and role-model for tens of thousands of Jews, both as a Talmudic scholar and as a religious leader. He is regarded as a seminal figure by Modern Orthodox Judaism, though it is questionable whether he would approve of many "Modern Orthodox" halachic and philosophical positions
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also agreed that Thanksgiving was not a Gentile holiday, and ruled that it was permissible to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, in his intellectual biography of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Nefesh HaRav, writes:

  • It was the opinion of Rabbi Soloveitchik that it was permissible to eat turkey at the end of November, on the day of Thanksgiving. We understood that, in his opinion, there was no question that turkey did not lack a tradition of kashrut (36) and that eating it on Thanksgiving was not a problem of imitating gentile customs. We also heard that this was the opinion of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik.

Others have also recounted that Rabbi Soloveitchik ruled this way, and that he found it difficult to comprehend how one could consider Thanksgiving a Gentile holiday or that it was prohibited to celebrate it. (37) Indeed, there were instances when Rabbi Soloveitchik implied to his students that he and his family celebrated Thanksgiving, although shiur was always held on Thanksgiving. (38)

A similar view is taken by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, who states that it is clear that halacha does not consider Thanksgiving to be a religious holiday, and that even if one lived in a society where there are some religious denominations that celebrate Thanksgiving "religiously" that would not be sufficient to make it a religious holiday, as it is clear that many secular people celebrate it. (39) Rabbi Henkin suggests that it would be a good thing occasionally to skip the Thanksgiving meal, as a way of indicating that this event is not a religious "obligation," but is merely permissive, and thus accommodate the stricture of Rabbi Feinstein. Rabbi Henkin concludes:

  • Where is there found any prohibition to rejoice on the king's birthday and similar occasions? Common practice proves the opposite. Rather there are two distinctly different rules. On a Gentile religious holiday, it is prohibited to do business [to assist the Gentiles] since they use that which we provide for worship. For this rule, it makes no difference what is the purpose of the holiday, even the coronation or birthday of the king is included. Such is not the case regarding rejoicing and celebrating alone; in this case one must examine the holiday to determine if its origins are primarily idolatrous or not. . . .However, if the reason for the celebration is primarily secular it is permissible to celebrate, such as the coronation of the king, the Fourth of July in America or Thanksgiving. For this it makes no difference that some Gentiles celebrate these holidays in churches. (40)

C. The Approach of Rabbi Hutner

R. Yitzchok (Isaac) Hutner (1906–1980) was an American Orthodox rabbi and rosh yeshiva. Rav Hutner was a founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Pachad Yitzchok in Har Nof Jerusalem, Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin and Kollel Gur Aryeh which have produced thousands of disciples. Though a brilliant Rosh Yeshiva whose lectures on Talmud were dazzling, he expended greater efforts on his discourses on morals and ethics and on demonstrating the spiritual power of the Yomim Tovim (Jewish Holidays) and Yomim Noraim (High Holy Days). This came from his recognition that though there were many Roshei Yeshiva capable of delivering illuminating Talmudic lectures, there were very few who could provide guidance in the non-halachic ‘aspects’ of Torah and Avodah (worship); who could provide a body of principles that made Judaism exciting, challenging, and inspiring.

Recognizing the critical importance of creating well-rounded disciples prepared to communicate the power and depth of Judaism he concentrated his efforts in this area

Rabbi Hutner argues that it is obvious and apparent that -- whatever the merit of celebrating Thanksgiving the first time in the 1600's -- the establishment of an annual holiday that is based on the Christian calendar is, at the very least, closely associated with idol worship and thus prohibited. Rabbi Hutner argues that such a celebration becomes a "holiday" through the creation of an annual observance and celebrating Gentile holidays is obviously wrong. Rabbi Hutner concludes:

  • In truth, one must distance oneself from these types of customs and even from those events that are similar to these types of customs . . . The truth is simple and obvious. (44)

An analogous approach, albeit less certain of a prohibition, is adopted by Rabbi Menashe Klein who also rules that halacha prohibits the celebration of Thanksgiving. (45) Rabbi Klein notes that halacha divides Gentile rituals into two distinctly different categories. The first category is those things that Gentiles do out of silliness and irrationality. The second are those that are done for religious purposes or for purposes of immodesty. Rabbi Klein then cites the Gra, who rules that Gentile customs and law that have no Jewish basis should be avoided because they might have an origin in the idolatrous customs of the past. (46) Rabbi Klein then states:

  • Thus, those who eat fowl as a commemoration for the fact, as I heard it, that they did not have what to eat, and they found this bird, and they were very happy and rejoiced over having found this bird, this appears not to be a Gentile custom. Nonetheless, one must examine this to determine if it is, as it states in Yoreh Deah 147:6, a case of one who makes a private holiday, and worships many gods, on the day that he was born or was first shaved or any similar case. It is possible that Thanksgiving is such a case; even though they claim that they are worshipping God, and not idols, it is possible that there is a mixture here and thus it is possible that this is a Gentile ritual. Thus the Spirit of the Sages does not approve of one who celebrates, and it is possible that there is a biblical violation. (47)

Rabbi Klein thus strongly discourages and perhaps forbids the celebration of Thanksgiving. (48)

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