[Avodah] Thanksgiving: Harmless Holiday or Chukos HaGoyim?

Prof. L. Levine llevine at stevens.edu
Wed Nov 24 08:55:31 PST 2021

>From https://ohr.edu/this_week/insights_into_halacha/6105
Thanksgiving: Harmless Holiday or Chukos HaGoyim? « Insights into Halacha « Ohr Somayach<https://ohr.edu/this_week/insights_into_halacha/6105>
Biur HaGr”a (Yoreh Deah 178: end 7) and Gilyon Maharsha (ad loc. 1). The Gr”a is bothered by the fact that the sugya in Sanhedrin seems to imply differently than the views of the Maharik, Ran, and later, the Rema, that a Chok Goyim, even one that is not a Chok Avodah Zarah should still be prohibited. Others who ask this question and conclude tzarich iyun on the Maharik’s shittah include ...
One of the interesting aspects of being American and living in the ‘Medina shel Chessed’ is dealing with secular holidays. A day off from work, more time to learn, and suspended Alternate Side parking rules are always appreciated. Of these holidays, Thanksgiving is by far the most popular among Yidden, with many keeping some semblance of observance, generally as a way of saying ‘Thank You’ and showing a form of Hakaras HaTov to our host country. Although all agree that showing Hakaras HaTov is prudent, on the other hand, it is well known that many contemporary poskim were very wary of any form of actual Thanksgiving observance. This article sets out to explore the history and halachic issues of this very American holiday.


As with many issues in halacha, there are different approaches to Thanksgiving observance. In fact, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l alone has written four different responsa on topic[11]<https://ohr.edu/6105#_edn11>. Although in the earlier teshuvos he seems to be against the idea of a Thanksgiving celebration, (possibly there were more religious connotations involved in the early 1960s celebrations than in the 1980s), nevertheless, in his later teshuvos he does allow a Thanksgiving observance (he notes that it is not a religious celebration) with turkey being served, as long as it is not seen as an obligatory annual celebration[12]<https://ohr.edu/6105#_edn12>, but rather as a periodical ‘simchas reshus’. All the same, Rav Moshe concludes that it is still preferable not to have a celebration b’davka for Thanksgiving.

Other contemporary poskim who allowed eating turkey on Thanksgiving include Rav Eliezer Silver, Rav Yosef Dov (J.B.) Soloveitchik (the Boston Gaon)[13]<https://ohr.edu/6105#_edn13>, the Rivevos Efraim,[14]<https://ohr.edu/6105#_edn14> and Rabbi Yehuda Hertzl Henkin.[15]<https://ohr.edu/6105#_edn15> They explain that Thanksgiving is “only a day of thanks and not, Heaven forbid, for idol celebration”. Therefore, they maintain that merely eating turkey on Thanksgiving cannot be considered Chukos HaGoyim.

On the other hand, other contemporary authorities disagree. Rav Yitzchok Hutner[16]<https://ohr.edu/6105#_edn16> is quoted as maintaining that the establishment of Thanksgiving as an annual holiday that is based on the Christian calendar is, at the very least, closely associated with Avodah Zarah and therefore prohibited. He explains that its annual observance classifies it as a ‘holiday’ and celebrating Gentile holidays is obviously not permitted. It is well known that Rav Avigdor Miller was a strong proponent of this view as well, as Thanksgiving’s origins belay that it was actually established as a religious holiday[17]<https://ohr.edu/6105#_edn17>.

Similarly, Rav Menashe Klein[18]<https://ohr.edu/6105#_edn18> ruled that it is a prohibited to celebrate Thanksgiving. Aside for citing the Gr”a’s opinion, which would prohibit any such celebration, he mentions that although the Thanksgiving holiday was originally established by (Pilgrims) rejoicing over their own survival, that they didn’t starve due to their finding the turkey, and might not be considered Chukos HaGoyim, nevertheless there is another prohibition involved. In Yoreh De’ah (148, 7), the Shulchan Aruch, based on a Mishna in Maseches Avodah Zara (8a), rules that if an idolater makes a personal holiday for various reasons (birthday, was let out of jail, etc.) and at that party he thanks his gods, it is prohibited to join in that celebration. Rav Klein posits that the same would apply to Thanksgiving, as it commemorates the original Pilgrim Thanksgiving, thanking G-d for the turkey and their survival, and would be certainly prohibited, and possibly even biblically.

An analogous ruling was given by Rav Dovid Cohen (of Gevul Ya’avetz), and Rav Feivel Cohen (author of the Badei HaShulchan)[19]<https://ohr.edu/6105#_edn19>, albeit for different reasons. Rav Feivel Cohen takes a seemingly extreme position, maintaining that not only is it forbidden for a Jew to celebrate Thanksgiving, it is even prohibited for a Gentile to do so as well[20]<https://ohr.edu/6105#_edn20>! Rav Dovid Cohen, on the other hand, writes that for a Jew to eat turkey on Thanksgiving expressly for the sake of the holiday should be prohibited by the rule of Tosafos, as it would be deemed following an irrational rule of theirs that is improper to follow. Yet, he concedes that it is not prohibited for a family to get together on a day off from work and eat turkey together, as long as they do so not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but rather because they like turkey. Even so, he concludes that it is still preferable not to do so.

See the above URL for more.

I recall being at an Agudath Convention sometime in, I believe, the early 1980s. On Thursday,  the first day of the convention and Thanksgiving Day,  turkey was served!  I am willing to bet that turkey will not be served this year on Thanksgiving Day at the convention.

 Let me add that a friend of mine told me that when his children saw pictures of their grandparents' wedding,  they asked "Were Bobbie and Ziadie Jewish when they got married?"

The frum world has certainly changed over the years.

Prof. Yitzchok Levine

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