Many observant Jews in America celebrate Thanksgiving. A Halachic question has arisen as to whether such celebration is Assur. In order to determine this, one must look into the day’s history. Thanksgiving was celebrated first in July of 1623. It was not celebrated nationally until 1789, when Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey proposed a resolution in Congress for George Washington to set Thanksgiving as a national holiday for that year (and that year only). After much debate, it was instituted as a national holiday. President Lincoln declared another national Thanksgiving in 1863, and it has been celebrated ever since.
The main question concerning observance of Thanksgiving is whether it is considered a religious holiday. The fact that the government defines the celebration as secular means nothing, as Chanukah, among other days, also is considered a secular holiday by the government. In this regard, there is a Machloket between Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe Feinstein, and Rav Yitzchak Hutner.
Rav Hutner maintains that because the original Thanksgiving is of idolatrous origin, and has been celebrated annually somewhere ever since, it is considered a semi-religious holiday and its celebration is Assur, as is eating turkey on that day, as doing so is a religious observance of an idolatrous holiday. Celebration of Thanksgiving, according to Rav Hutner, is a violation of the Issur of Chukat Akum, imitating the gentiles. The other extreme opinion is that of Rav Soloveitchik, who holds that observance of Thanksgiving is completely permissible. He told his students that after giving his Shiur on Thanksgiving, he himself would go home to “celebrate” it. Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin agrees, arguing that because many secular people celebrate Thanksgiving, it is considered a secular holiday. Rav Moshe Feinstein takes a middle approach. He feels that Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, but he still prohibits its annual celebration because he feels that it is considered an irrational act of the surrounding culture, which is forbidden to imitate. However, he permits observance of Thanksgiving provided that one deliberately not celebrate it once every few years, which will alleviate the concern that one has added another holiday to the calendar. Additionally, Rav Moshe rules that eating turkey on Thanksgiving is completely permissible.
Whichever opinion one chooses to follow, he should be cognizant of the other views and not criticize those who adopt a different approach. Moreover, just as Rav Soloveitchik did not cancel his Shiur on Thanksgiving, so too we should not let the celebrations interfere with our obligation to study Torah daily.
-Adapted from an article by Rabbi Michael Broyde
[Editor’s note: Rav J. David Bleich, in a conversation at Yeshiva University, reported that he attended an Agudath Israel convention, held on Thanksgiving many decades ago, at which turkey was served. Rav Bleich defended this action by noting that the Puritans, who established Thanksgiving, were pure monotheists, and thus Thanksgiving is not of idolatrous origin.]