Well… once again it was turkey day. It had been a while since I regularly had a big Thanksgiving dinner. But back in the good old days when our children were young – one of our extended family members would host such a meal every year which we would all attend. I guess now that all of our kids have grown, that custom sort fell by the wayside.
But that doesn’t mean that I no longer support the idea of a Thanksgiving Day meal. I do. My Rebbe R’ Aharon used to have Thanksgiving Day turkey dinners with his family. One of my favorite stories is told about the Rav. He had scheduled his Shiur in YU early one Thanksgiving day in order to be on time at his family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
As I say every time there is a national holiday in this country, we ought to participate and show our appreciation for the privilege of living in America.
Some historians propose that the holiday of Thanksgiving was originally based on Sukkos. According to these historians the pilgrims lived together with Sephardic Jews in Holland for 10 years prior to coming here. Holland was considered a safe haven from religious persecution. Understanding that Sukkos represented deliverance from religious persecution in Egypt, they used that as a paradigm for their own celebration of deliverance from religious persecution.
Being “Old” Testament oriented, it seems natural for them to embrace this time of year for that celebration. There was also a desire to thank God after the Autumn harvest. This too is based on Sukkos which is called the Chag HaAsif – the ‘holiday of gathering’ when the fall crops would be harvested. (Israel was then much more of an agrarian society.)
It was George Washington who by proclamation in October of 1789 finally established Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated in November. The fourth Thursday in November was established by federal legislation in 1941 – for people of all religions to give thanks for what we have.
I see nothing wrong with our participating with all American citizens in observing Thanksgiving. And apparently neither did my Rebbe nor his illustrious brother, the Rav.
But there are some Poskim who do not like the idea at all and are opposed to it in spirit if not in strict Halacha. Rav Moshe Feinstein said that it is permissible to celebrate Thanksgiving by having a big dinner since it was not established as a religious holiday. But he felt it was not a proper custom.
I can’t say for sure, but my guess is he didn’t like the custom because by participating with non Jews in a national meal of thanksgiving – it was too close to being involved with them in a religious way. But that is just speculation on my part.
In any case I agree with his Psak that it is permissible but disagree with his view that it is best not to do so.
Unfortunate are the lengths his approach has been taken to by the right. Celebrating Thanksgiving is frowned upon and virtually ignored as anything more than a day off from work.
But I agree with my Rebbe. Thanksgiving is yet another way to express our Hakoras HaTov to this great nation of ours. And yes – to thank God for it. So, Happy Thanksgiving. For those of you who are going to have a big festive meal with family and friends – enjoy. And eat your Turkey guilt free. (Religiously speaking only.)
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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