A Reply to a Thoughtful Critic: New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day and Halacha
Guest post by R. Michael J. Broyde and R. Mark (Moshe) Goldfeder
Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University, was the founding rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta and is a dayan in the Beth Din of America. Rabbi Mark (Moshe) Goldfeder is an SJD student at Emory University, served on the rabbinic staff at Mt. Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights and received his law degree from NYU.
Matters of halacha are never simple and Rabbi Yair Hoffman’s response (link) and reply to this short article on celebrating New Year’s Day (link) represents everything that is excellent about Torah study on the internet – and it is not surprising coming from such a thoughtful writer on current events. We welcome this opportunity to reply to his views and hope that this column clarifies our view of the relevant halacha.
Rabbi Hoffman disagrees with us about three matters. First, he thinks we have misread Rav Moshe Feintein’s view on when gentile customs can become secular; second, he thinks that Valentine’s Day is still limited in celebration to Christian lands; and finally, he thinks that Rav Moshe did not permit New Year’s Day celebrations, only bar mitzvah or wedding celebrations that happen to fall out on New Year’s Day. We stand by the original article.
When Can Pleasurable Customs lose their Pagan origins?
First, Rabbi Hoffman thinks we misunderstood and thus mistranslated a line in a ruling from Rav Moshe Feinstein in Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:11(4). The original piece stated that:
Rabbi Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:11(4)) is logically correct in his observation, ‘Thus, it is obvious in my opinion, that even in a case where something would be considered a prohibited gentile custom, if many people do it for reasons unrelated to their religion or law, but rather because it is pleasurable to them, there is no prohibition of imitating gentile custom. So too, it is obvious that if gentiles were to make a religious law to eat a particular item that is good to eat, halacha would not prohibit eating that item. So too, any item of pleasure in the world cannot be prohibited merely because gentiles do so out of religious observance.’
For the sake of clarity, the actual line from Rav Moshe reads:
והנה פשוט לע”ד דאף מה שהוא ודאי נחשב חוק העכו”ם, אם הוא דבר שחזינן שעושים כן כולי עלמא דנכרים, גם אלה שלא שייכי כלל לאמונתם ולחוקותיהם, מטעם שכן יותר ניחא לעלמא להנאתם, כבר ליכא על זה איסור דבחוקותיהם לא תלכו. וגם פשוט שאם יעשו עכו”ם חוק לע”ז שלהם לאכול איזה מין מדברים הטובים והראוים לאכילה – שלא יאסר אותו המין לאכילה. וכמו כן כל הנאה שבעולם, לא שייך שתיאסר בשביל שעכו”ם עשו זה לחוק.
Rabbi Hoffman noted that it is his belief that a more accurate translation of Rav Feinstein’s words would read:
…that even a matter that is certainly considered chok haAkum, if it is something where we observe that the entire gentile world does this, (even those) that have no connection at all to their belief and to their customs, rather [they do so] because it is more convenient for the masses to do so, there is already no prohibition of imitating gentile custom.
And what flows from this translation is that Rabbi Hoffman feels that Iggerot Moshe cannot be used then to justify giving chocolate on Valentine’s Day since (as he states) it is: “hardly the universal practice to give chocolates on February 14 in cultures that are foreign to Christianity.”
We think that Rabbi Hoffman’s translation is too literal, and the root of our disagreement hinges on how one translates the words “kulei alma.” We think that Rav Moshe is using the term in its colloquially accepted sense in describing a general practice or mode of behavior (much as nowadays we would use the term “everyone,” as in “everyone does it,” to mean that many people have a certain practice) and that it is not necessary, as Rabbi Hoffman claims, that “the entire gentile world does this.” Based on this, we felt that celebrations of Valentine’s Day have already reached the point of “everyone” doing it, at least in America, leading to our second dispute.
Is Everyone Across the World Celebrating Valentine’s Day?
While the sociology of Valentine’s Day is far from our area of expertise (and we suspect that it is far from Rabbi Hoffman’s as well) and it is understood that this is an area where reasonable people may well disagree, the article’s original conclusion that we are well past the point where Valentine’s day is only celebrated by Christians or in Christian lands, is entirely defensible. A cursory search on the internet seems to only bolster this point of view. See, for instance, here:
link 1 and here: link 2 for articles discussing Valentine’s Day celebrations in Japan and India, respectively. We think that “everybody” – Jews, Christians, pagans and atheists – are all already sharing chocolate on Valentine’s Day in many different parts of the world, and thus halacha does not prohibit such behavior.
This is even more correct in America, where people who never celebrate Christian holidays still celebrate Valentine’s Day. For more on this, see the article at link, which concludes that, like New Year’s Day, it is the conduct of the pious to avoid overt celebrations, but which states that:
eating chocolate on Valentine’s Day and even giving chocolate to another, so long as there is not notation of why such is being given, is clearly permissible,
it is the conduct of the pious to avoid explicitly celebrating Valentine’s day with a Valentine’s Day card, although bringing home chocolate, flowers or even jewelry to one’s beloved is always a nice idea all year around, including on February 14.
New Year’s Day and Halacha
Rabbi Hoffman also takes issue with the article’s permissive view regarding New Year’s celebrations. The original article stated, in relevant part:
According to Rema (Y.D. 148:12), New Year’s Day is a Christian holiday . . . whose celebration must be avoided and can only be marked when long-term, life-threatening hatred to our community will result if gifts are not given.’ On the other hand, the reality seems to have completely changed. New Year’s Day—like Valentine’s Day and unlike Christmas—seems to have completely lost its Christian overtones. Even in the deep Christian South where I live, there are no indicia that connect New Year’s Day to Christianity. The ‘first generation’ Hindu and Muslim communities in Atlanta—who would never celebrate Christmas—have New Year’s Eve parties. It is obvious that the status of New Year’s Day has changed in the last 300 years. Indeed, in contemporary America there is little religious content or expression to New Year’s Day. Few would classify it as a religious holiday, as there is a clear secular method and reason to celebrate New Year’s Day, and thus it has lost its status as a Christian holiday. Rabbi Feinstein notes this directly himself in Igros Moshe (Even HaEzer 2:13). He writes with regard to New Year’s: ‘The first day of the year for them [January 1] . . . is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [ba’alei nefesh] should be strict.’ This insight, written in 1963, is even more true nowadays. The Christian origins of New Year’s is even more cloaked now than a half century ago . . . I think that Rav Moshe’s assertion that avoiding such a [New Year’s] party is the conduct of the pious is correct, and technical Jewish law permits such.”
Rabbi Hoffman feels that here too Rav Moshe has been misread and misapplied, in that he feels that Rav Moshe was solely discussing the permissibility of conducting a bar mitzvah or Jewish wedding celebration on New Year’s Day on account of the prohibition of marit ayin (the appearance of impropriety). In this instance, however, we must actually disagree, because we think that if one reads the responsum closely, it seems clear that Rav Moshe is in fact discussing two different kinds of parties.
Again, for purposes of clarity, we include the actual text of Rav Moshe in Even HaEzer 2:13:
בדבר לעשות איזה שמחה בימי איד של הנכרים אם הוא מצד אמונתם, אם בכוונה מחמת שהוא יום איד אסור מדינא ואם בלא כוונה יש לאסור מצד מראית העין, וסעודת מצוה כמילה ופדה”ב יש לעשות אפילו בימי איד שלהן, דאין לאסור בשביל מראית עין סעודה המחוייבת, אבל סעודת בר מצוה טוב לדחות על יום אחר, ואף נישואין יש לקבוע לכתחלה על יום אחר. ויום ראשון משנה שלהם וכן טענקס גיווינג אין לאסור מדינא אבל בעלי נפש יש להם להחמיר.
A (color coded) close read of the teshuva is needed. Iggerot Moshe opens with the following halachic claim regarding making a celebration on a non-Jewish religious holiday (in orange): if the celebration in question is done intentionally on that day because it is their holiday, that is in fact assur midina, forbidden by Jewish law. Then Iggerot Moshe states (in blue) that if it is not done on that day intentionally because it is their holiday then one’s concern is only for marit ayin, and he adds (in green) that in such a case if it is a seudah mechuyevet (an obligatory meal whose day is set by halacha), such as a brit milah or a pidyon haben, one can participate and not be concerned about marit ayin. But (he adds in red) if it is a seudah like a bar mitzvah, which is not an obligatory meal, or a wedding, where the parties select a date for convenience, one should push it off to a different day to avoid a marit ayin issue. Iggerot Moshe’s next and last statement is the crucial one. New Year’s and Thanksgiving, he says (in purple), are not assur midina, forbidden by Jewish law; however, baalei nefesh (pious people) should be stringent on themselves. The last line seems to be clearly harking back to the first kind of party, the kind that is intentionally done on this particular day because it is their religious holiday, and here Rav Moshe distinguishes New Year’s and Thanksgiving from, for example, December 25, which as he noted, aside from being marit ayin would in fact be assur midina if celebrated for itself.
Thus, again, we stand by the conclusion that participating in an office New Year’s Eve party when one feels that such conduct is needed and part of the culture of the office in which one works, is not a violation of “following in the ways of the gentiles,” although we think that pious people ought to be strict on these matters. Practically, we have been asked by people who feel that non-attendance at a work New Year’s Eve party would jeopardize their employment, and we tell them in such cases that attendance is permitted and a wiser course than being unemployed in these hard economic times.
Torah discourse over the Internet is yet another wonderful manifestation of the Divine plan and a great use of technology to foster religious growth. We thank Rabbi Hoffman for helping us refine our views.
Our view is that while New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day both used to be Gentile holidays, in the United States in the year 2012 they are no longer celebrated as such by the vast and overwhelming majority of citizens. Given that fact, it is still the conduct of the pious to avoid such celebrations, but not a categorical violation of Jewish law. As such, a Jew may go to a New Year’s Eve party to avoid job instability. “Celebrations” that involve conduct that normal people view as generally positive – such as eating chocolate on Valentine’s Day (or even fruitcake on Christmas), or making a resolution to be a better person on New Year’s Day – do not on their face present a violation of Jewish law, so long as they are not done as part of a religious celebration.
 Over email correspondence, the ever polite Rabbi Hoffman disagreed with the above analysis and posited that Rav Moshe would never have argued with the Rama about New Year’s Day without more explicit acknowledgement that he was arguing with the Rama. Based on that, Rabbi Hoffman does agree that Rav Moshe permits Thanksgiving celebrations; he insists, however, that Rav Moshe does not permit New Year’s celebrations. While we understand Rabbi Hoffman’s fine analysis on this issue, we are not inclined to agree with it for three reasons. First, it is quite possible that Rav Moshe would argue with a factual assertion of the Rama about a social norm, as these “facts” on the ground can, and do, change. Second, it is quite possible that Rav Moshe was not aware of the Rama at all – it is only cited in the uncensored recent editions of the Darchei Moshe, which were published only a few years before Rav Moshe’s passing and which perhaps he was not aware of. Finally, Rav Moshe elaborated on his view concerning Thanksgiving many times, and never indicated that the rule for New Year’s Day and the rule for Thanksgiving would be anything other than identical, as he noted in his very first responsum on this matter.  This view is consistent with that which is noted in the original article, which states:
Thus, eating chocolate on Valentine’s Day and even giving chocolate to another, so long as there is not notation of why such is being giving, is clearly permissible, even if one disagreed with the analysis above and thought Valentine’s Day was still a Christian holiday.
This is based on the view of Rav Moshe mentioned above in Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:11(4)). Although this specific example rarely comes up, the question of eating Christmas (red and green) M&M’s put out for employees to eat has been asked a few times.