Should a Torah-Observant Jew Mark the American Thanksgiving Holiday?

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20131127-190556.jpgShould a Torah-Observant Jew Mark the American Thanksgiving Holiday?

An Argument in the Affirmative based on a Shiur by the Rav

Hanukkah as a Festival of Hodayah La-Shem (Gratitude to God)

Delivered by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Congregation Moriah on December 6, 1966

Edited by Basil Herring

In Hilchos Hanukkah 3:1-3, the Rambam provides a lengthy account of the events surrounding the Hanukkah story, something which he pointedly does not do in the preceding chapters that deal with Purim. Why?

The Obligation to Express Gratitude to God

The Sheiltos precedes its discussion of Hanukkah saying that a Jew must always be willing to express praise and thanks (shevach and hodayah) to God for His miracles. There is a difference of opinion between Rambam and Ramban as to whether in general there is a separate mitzvah to express gratitude to God (the Rambam says there is none, as it is subsumed under the mitzvah of avodas Hashem she-belev, serving God inwardly, while the Ramban says there is one, insofar as there is no other general mitzvah under which it might be subsumed). But for both of them, whatever the mitzvah parameter might be, one is obligated to thank God for the chesed (kindness) that God bestows upon oneself, at the time (or shortly after) it is bestowed. Such for instance was the case with the Israelites at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds.

Should a third party beneficiary express such thanks, either at the time, or subsequently? The Sheiltos continues: “subsequently on those days on which a miracle occurred, such as Hanukkah or Purim, one must bless God, as it says regarding Yisro ‘baruch Hashem Who saved you from the Egyptians.’” Why does the Sheiltos reference Yisro, rather than other more obvious precedents for thanking God that are encountered throughout Tanach? The answer is that because Yisro praised God even though he was not a direct beneficiary of the chesed, we learn from him that we too must praise God on Hanukkah and Purim for the chasadim extended to our ancestors.

Purim, Hanukkah, and their Shared Foundation of Gratitude

The fundamental principle of both Purim and Hanukkah is the obligation to express hodayah (gratitude) for the events of those times. Thanksgiving is the shared yesod (foundation) of both festivals. Hence they both incorporate al ha-nissim in the thanksgiving sections of the Amidah and the Grace after Meals. Hence the al ha-nissim of Hanukkah concludes with “they established these eight days of Hanukkah to express thanks and praise (lehodos u-lehallel) to Your great name.”) Thus the Rambam treats both festivals in one unified section of his work, separating them only into disparate chapters.

With this foundation, we can answer another question. Why, immediately following the events of Purim, were the Sages opposed to Esther’s desire to make Purim a permanent feature of the Jewish calendar (Megillah 11a)? The answer is that they were concerned regarding the Torah’s prohibition (Deut. 4:2) of bal tosif (i.e., by adding a new festival they would be adding to the Torah’s commandments). Why then did they in the end defer to her and establish Purim as an annual celebration? Because they concluded that they would not in fact be adding to the Torah. For the Torah itself requires that we give thanks to God for His kindness, and an annual celebration of Purim would merely constitute a kiyyum (fulfillment) of this obligation. All that the Sages did was to mandate specific actions to be performed on Purim to express that gratitude, including the obligation of pirsumei nisa (making others aware of the original events involved). It is for this reason that the Rambam (at the end of Hal. 3) when presenting the required and prohibited acts of Hanukkah adds the apparently redundant words kekriyas ha-Megillah (“just like the reading of the Megillah.”) What he means to say is that the rabbinically required actions mandated for Hanukkah are likewise not new but are rather a fulfillment of the obligation to express gratitude to God, just like the actions of Purim.

For the same reason, the Rambam writes there that the days of Hanukkah are yemei simchah vehallel (days of rejoicing and praise), insofar as Hallel is the quintessential expression of gratitude to God. So too the Hallel obligation extends to lighting the Hanukkah menorah. That is, it is not a separate mitzvah, but simply a kiyyum (fulfillment) of the Torah’s own obligation to serve God by expressing one’s gratitude to Him.

We can now consider a related question: on Hanukkah does the obligation to express gratitude to God require a detailed description of those events and their associated divine chasadim, or is a generalized statement of indebtedness sufficient?

On the one hand we can learn from Avraham Avinu (see Genesis 23:12: “Avram bowed down (to God) in the presence of the people of the land,”) that there is no need to be specific. So too the Hagomel and Hatov veha-meitiv berachos do not detail the blessings for which we are thanking God. On the other hand Yisro’s expression of praise and the al ha-nissim formulation are relatively detailed? In my view the answer is clear: when an individual gives thanks for a chesed he has personally been granted, only a general reference to the chesed is in order. When the chesed is granted to Klal Yisroel a more specific description is necessary. Hence on Hanukkah we go to significant lengths in expressing our indebtedness to God for His salvation. To that end al ha-nissim and biyemei Matisyahu carefully delineate the contours of the salvation wrought, and the nightly lighting of the menorah reenacts the miracle of the oil.

Furthermore, the national-corporate nature of the gratitude of these days extends to facilitating similar feelings of indebtedness to God by our fellow Jews. This is the significance of the requirement of pirsumei nisa (bringing others to recognize the chesed, and causing them to acknowledge God as well). To this end the daily recital of Hallel proclaims hodu la-Shem ki tov, i.e., “nor only I but you too must give thanks to God for He is good.”

One may ask why, if this is the case, the personal gratitude expressed via the Hagomel blessing requires what could be considered the equivalent of pirsumei nisa, i.e., the public setting of a quorum of ten men who respond by acknowledging the personal chesed? The answer is that such a quorum has nothing to do with pirsumei nisa – it is rather, as the Ha’amek Davar explains, a reflection of the requirement that the korban todah (the sacrifice made in expression of gratitude) which is the template for the Hagomel itself, could only be offered in the Temple in the presence of ten men.

Other Aspects of the Expression of Gratitude

There are two further aspects of thanksgiving that should be noted. Firstly, it does not suffice to mention only the specific event in question. One must also reference all of God’s chasadim – as we see in the Grace after Meals which includes the generic fourth blessing of ha-tov vehameitiv, in the Hallel (that makes reference to God’s kindnesses from the beginning of Jewish history until the end of time), and in the Hagomel (that states she-gemalani kol tov, i.e., Who has granted me all kinds of goodness).

Secondly, we learn from this passage in the Rambam that we must acknowledge that we were entirely undeserving of what we received. This emerges from the Rambam’s omission of any reference to the people having turned to God in prayer in response to the oppression they endured. In the first Halachah he writes that “Israel endured great suffering because of the oppression, until the God of our forefathers took mercy on them, redeemed them, and saved them…” It is instructive to compare this to the account in Exodus 2:23-24, which says that “they sighed (va-yeianchu) from their work, they called out (vayizaku), and the cries (shavasam) from their labor rose up to God, and God heard their groaning (naakasam)” in extremis. The Sifri, and later the Ramban and the Or ha-Chayim, make it clear that these words depict inarticulate pain, anguish, and despair – but not prayer. The Israelites in Egypt did not petition God in prayer to save them. God, however, responded in His mercy as if they had turned to Him in supplication. This is similar to the secret of the Yom Kippur goat sent to Azazel, which according to the Ramban symbolizes the suffering of Jews which God in His infinite mercy accepts as if it were a sacrifice to Him even though that is not the conscious intent of the sufferer. So too with Hanukkah: the oppressed Jews did not cry out to God in prayer, yet God came to their rescue in an act of absolute and unsolicited chesed. The first one to express a similar sentiment was Yaakov Avinu, who in Genesis 32:11 unambiguously declared his unworthiness with the words katonti mi-kol ha-chasadim (I am undeserving of all the goodness that You have bestowed upon me). True gratitude can only take place when it includes an awareness of being profoundly unworthy of the gift received.

We can thus understand why the Birkas Hagomel includes the term la-chayavim (to those who are guilty), for it acknowledges that God bestows kindnesses on us when we are entirely undeserving of them. Interestingly, the view of the Magen Avraham is that a person can only say this of himself, but not of others, hence if a husband says Hagomel on behalf of his wife he should omit the word la-chayavim.

In other words, the thanksgiving of Hagomel incorporates an act of viddui (confession) and tzidduk ha-din (acknowledging the justice of God’s decree). Just as in viddui one declares ki emes asisa vaanachnu hirshanu (You have acted correctly even though we have sinned), so whenever we thank God we must express our complete unworthiness of what we have received, and hence commit to doing better in the future, i.e., to engage in teshuvah (repentance).

In short, just as the Seder night is primarily intended as an expression of thanksgiving and praise to God for the undeserved and unsolicited redemption that He bestowed on our forefathers (and by extension on ourselves) in Egypt and Sinai, so throughout Hanukkah the central focus must be to internalize, articulate, and then project a profound sense of gratitude to God for having saved our progenitors and ourselves “in those days at this time,” as the story of Hanukkah attests.


Comments by Basil Herring:

  1. The Rav’s analysis of gratitude to God as the central principle underlying Hanukkah bears significance for various reasons. Firstly, it transforms our understanding of what should be our state of mind during those eight days, beyond the physical actions, words, and prayer insertions with which we are so familiar. Too few of us actually go beyond the mandated actions associated with Hanukkah, to internalize the emotions that those actions are intended to give voice to. The Rav here teaches us that Hanukkah cannot be fully and properly celebrated unless we experience a deep sense not just of gratitude to God, but also of being unworthy and undeserving of all that God did to save our forebears at the time of the events that Hanukkah commemorates.
  2. In a sense, the point that the Rav is making is similar to what he says elsewhere regarding other mitzvos such as Yamim Tovim and mourning. That is, they consist of both a chiyuv (a required state of mind) and a kiyum (an accompanying action or actions that give concrete expression to the requisite state of mind). Both are necessary, neither alone is sufficient. In the case of Hanukkah, the necessary state of mind is to maintain for 8 days conscious affirmation of overwhelming indebtedness, recognizing that “without Him having performed those acts at that time I would not be here today practicing the Judaism that I know.” And the necessary actions are the familiar ones of lighting the menorah, reciting al-hanissim and Hallel, et al.
  3. The import of his analysis, however, goes beyond Hanukkah itself. In the context of the rare confluence of Hanukkah and the American Thanksgiving holiday which is celebrated in 2013, one can consider whether or not we ought in some fashion to recognize Thanksgiving per se, in a religious context. There are those in our communities who deny any need to “celebrate” the day. But in light of the Rav’s analysis, one can consider the following:
    1. God works in mysterious ways, almost always without recourse to overt miracles, and for the most part in ways that are recognizable only in hindsight and retrospect.
    2. It is difficult to imagine what the Jewish people in our time would look like had large segments of eastern and western European Jewry, not to speak of many Middle Eastern and North African Jews, not emigrated to North America in the second half of the 19th Century and throughout the twentieth. In light of the catastrophes of the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, the rise of the Eastern European Communist block so opposed to communal Jewish life, and the destruction of the Jewish communities in Arab lands, what would have been the condition of worldwide Jewry had there not been a mass migration to North America throughout all that time?
    3. As to the well-being of the Zionist enterprise and Jewish State, no matter our opinion as to the religious standing thereof, can it be doubted even for a moment that the North American democracies have proven themselves time and again to be the primary (and at times only) allies standing between our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land and their sworn enemies around the world?
    4. In this context surely we can echo the well-known sentiment penned by R. Moshe Feinstein on New York’s Lower East Side when he referred to America as a medinah shel chesed (a country of kindness) as far as the Jews are concerned? And while he may have intended to refer to the hospitality, religious freedom, and material security that the United States has extended to its Jewish immigrants and citizens, can one not incorporate the sense of America being a medinah shel chasdei Hashem, i.e., a land that embodies Gods kindness to the Jewish people?
    5. This being the case, surely we can affirm that, just as was the case in Maccabean times, so too in ours we have witnessed, in the rise of North America on the stage of history and the accompanying Jewish immigration, material success and political influence on behalf of the Jewish people, the hand of God in saving and strengthening the remnant of our people in the face of its enemies. Surely that is cause for us to affirm a religious obligation, no less, to both feel and express gratitude and thanksgiving to God in a way which fulfills the biblical and halachic requirements of hodayah la-Hashem, of demonstrating our gratitude to God for bringing about the salvation of our people via His having bestowed upon us the unparalleled power, freedom, and dignity that the United States of America (and for that matter Canada in celebrating its Day of Thanksgiving) embodies?
    6. If one were to argue that our way to express such gratitude is not the way that our fellow Americans express that gratitude, the response would be simple: find another appropriate and public way to do it. But until such time as that comes to be, why not mark the shared Thanksgiving day, albeit in ways that reflect both the underlying sentiment and the halachic ethos?

About Basil Herring

Rabbi Basil Herring PhD has headed a number of congregations, taught at various colleges, published a number of volumes and studies in contemporary Halachah, medieval Jewish philosophy and Bible, and best Rabbinic practices. A past Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Caucus and Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA), he is the editor of the recently published Avodat Halev Siddur of the Rabbinical Council of America.

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