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Is there anything wrong with celebrating Thanksgiving? How about having a turkey dinner? I heard that at the Agudah conventions a long time ago which always took place on thanksgiving weekend they used to serve turkey in honor of thanksgiving.

The meaning of Thanksgiving today is not very clear. Here’s the history:

December 1620 – The pilgrims (idol worshippers by the way, Puritans of the English Separatist Church who first ran to Holland from England to escape religious persecution, and then left Holland because it wasn’t a religious enough environment for them) settle at Plymouth Rock. Winter was terribly cold and stormy. Of the 102 pilgrims that arrived, 46 of them died. But the next year’s harvest was good, and so they decided to celebrate their survival. They made a three day party, which was the first Thanksgiving.

It’s not known whether turkey was even part of the celebration at all. Governor William Bradford sent some guys “hunting for fowl”, and they may or may not have returned with a turkey. They definitely had lobster, deer meat, and fruit. It was a one-time thing, this Thanksgiving, which took place in July, never intended to be repeated again.

Every now and then another one-time, local Thanksgiving was declared because of various good fortunes, including a ‘day of prayer” that was successful (sic) at “ending a long drought” in 1623.

The first time all colonists celebrated a Thanksgiving was 1777 when they beat the British in a battle.

In 1789 George Washington declared a national Thanksgiving day, but it met much opposition, first because why should the problems of a few pilgrims merit a national holiday, and two – this one came from Thomas Jefferson – that the government has NO RIGHT TO MAKE RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS for everyone in the country!

Yes, religious. These were George Washington’s words:

“Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks …

“And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us … to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually … to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations … and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue …and … to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best. “

The first official national Thanksgiving holiday was declared by President Lincoln in 1863. These were his words:

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God . . .“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

Sounds clearly like a religious holiday to me. Although it’s not part of any particular religion, it is certainly not merely a holiday celebrating the fact that the pilgrims survived and found a turkey to eat or the discovery of America. If was declared as “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

Therefore, I would say simply that based on this, celebrating Thanksgiving would be prohibited because of Chukas Akum.

Even if one will argue that Thanksgiving has no religious connotations, it would be in the category of “minhag shtus shelhen”, plain silly meaningless customs of the Goyim, which are prohibited by Tosfos in Avodah Zarah 11b.

Now Rav Moshe Feinstein ZT”L has numerous Teshuvos on this. In OH V:20:6 he says that there is no prohibition to make a generic celebration on Thanksgiving (though he says a baal nefesh should be strict and not do it) but to actually make a celebration in honor of Thanksgiving is prohibited, because of Tosfos in Avodah Zarah that I quoted above. Rav Moshe says that even if originally the celebrators of the holiday thanked their Avodah Zarah, that has nothing to do with later celebrations, where this is no longer the case. To eat turkey on thanksgiving would therefore not be prohibited he says, unless you are doing it to celebrate Thanksgiving.

He also comments on the ruling of a certain Rav (I know who it is but if Rav Moshe did not mention his name I will not either) that eating turkey on Thanksgiving is Yehorg V’Al Yaavor, that he “doesn’t know the story [of Thanksgiving]”.

Rav Moshe ends, however by saying that this prohibition is “not clear.”

In a different teshuva (YD 4:11) Rav Moshe writes, “It looks as if (l’chorah), since in the religious books [of the Christians] this holiday is not mentioned, and … since this [holiday] is a day of commemoration for the people of the country who also were joyful because of the country to live here, now or then, we do not find a prohibition to make a feast, nor by eating turkey. Like we find in Kiddushin 66a that King Yanai made a feast when he won …a war, and ate vegetables as a commemoration. . .. But I still say that it is prohibited to establish this day annually for this feast, as Yanai’s celebration was only a one-time thing.”

In the very next teshuva Rav Moshe reconciles the seeming contradictions in his responsa. He describes Thanksgiving: “They didn’t have food for a certain time when they first came to this country, and then they ate turkeys”.

Rav Moshe explains that it makes no sense to establish a national holiday because of the events of certain pilgrims – exactly the objections that were raised against George Washington’s proclamation! – And that therefore Thanksgiving would be considered a “silly custom” and therefore prohibited under Chukas Akum. He says that it is not a religious holiday because, “They do not make this [holiday] because of religious concerns, and not with reasons of their religions, rather, it is a commemoration of something that has nothing to do with their religions, since it wasn’t founded by priests but rather plain people who were not involved with the idolatrous religions. Since they do not do this because of any connection to any religion in the world…”

The problem is, historical research clearly indicates that Thanksgiving was indeed established based on religious beliefs (the distinction Rav Moshe made before about the original celebrators perhaps thanking their idols but not today was regarding the celebrators own individual behavior. But he is clearly assuming that the establishment of the holiday had nothing to do with religion). Was Rav Moshe aware of this? Was Rav Moshe provided with this information by whoever it was that explained to him what Thanksgiving is about?

Who knows, but it doesn’t sound like it. Rav Moshe himself in YD 4:11, when he gives his reasoning why Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday he prefaces his remarks with “l’chorah”, which means “it seems so, but it’s not certain.”

Rav Moshe himself rules that to make an annual celebration is prohibited, and only to eat a one-time meal is permitted (you can do this again next year).
Bottom line:

(a) To celebrate Thanksgiving as an official, annual celebration is for sure Assur;

(b) to celebrate it at all may be Minhag shtus and also prohibited,

(c) and that's assuming that the whole thing is not a religious holiday, which it seems, is not the case. It was established as a religious holiday with religious meaning.

(d) And even what is permitted, even according to Rav Moshe's information, is only the bare-bones Halachah. A baal nefesh (spiritual person? Something like that) should stay away, he says.

Moderator, I just want to thank you for the elaborate explanation you gave on the history of Thanksgiving. In my office, this topic came up as my co-workers are non-Jews. They were surprised when I told them that I don't celebrate Thanksgiving. Your explanation came to mind (as I had read it when you first posted it) & I went online and printed what you wrote about it & gave them a copy. (Of course, I deleted the parts where Halacha comes into play.) They were very satisfied & impressed with what you had written & they also learned what they were really celebrating!

Dear R' Mod.

I wasn't there personally, but my Father and many others where, when Rav Avigdor Miller ZTK"L, spoke about this. I am repeating it because it’s Asi Librurei.
Supposedly the Rov had said, that he would never argue with Reb Moshe ZT"L, except in regard to this Sheila. He said that whoever gave Rav Moshe his info. was misinformed. Thee Rov continued, that since he himself was American he is well aware of the history. Therefore, Rav Miller paskened that it is "AVODAH ZARAH". <--Supposedly those words specifically.

Thanks for everything Mod.

Yes, he did say that. He held it was Yehoreg V'al Yaavor, and it is a good guess that he was the Rav who Rav Moshe was referring to in his Teshuva when he said there is a certain Rav who said that. Rav Moshe writes that this Rav does not know the facts, and Rabbi Milelr said Rav Moshe did not know the facts. From what it seems, as I posted above, Rabbi miller's facts were right, and Rav Moshe was misinformed by whoever explained to him what Thanksgiving was.

But Rav Moshe also writes that besides the Metzius issue, in Hilchos Avodah Zorah eating turkey cannot be Yehoreg V'Al Yaavor even if the metzius is different than what he assumes. That (Halachic) issue Rabbi Miller would still have to contend with, even being correct about the metzius.

But chukas akum - either religious chok or minhag shtus - it would be, even if it is not yehoreg v'al yaavor. That is what I wrote above.

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