Is Thanksgiving Kosher?

Applying Jewish law to Turkey Day.

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Rabbi Feinstein reinforces his understanding that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday in a responsum published in 1980. 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, halakhah [Jewish law] 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 . . . Even though one can question the source, it is still a real prohibition."

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. 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.

Rabbi Feinstein, in a recently published teshuva [responsum] also written in 1980, 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

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, which he states is not the normative halakhah, but a mere stricture. In this teshuva, he states that the responsa quoted above is to be considered the normative one. 

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Rabbi Michael Broyde

Rabbi Michael Broyde is an associate professor of law at Emory University and the rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills, Atlanta.