by Yisroel Ben-Porat
Yisroel Ben-Porat is a PhD candidate in early American history at CUNY Graduate Center.
Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, many Americans grace their dinner tables with turkey and cranberry sauce in celebration of Thanksgiving. According to popular tradition, the holiday commemorates the first harvest of the Pilgrims following their arrival in Plymouth Colony. American Jews have long debated whether to participate in such festivities. This article offers a historical perspective on the approach of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, widely considered America’s greatest halachic decisor of the twentieth century. I argue that a deeper understanding of the holiday’s history potentially carries halachic implications.
Rabbi Feinstein, often affectionately referred to as “Rav Moshe,” wrote a series of four responsa related to this question. My analysis begins by providing an up-to-date account of Thanksgiving’s origins, which the halachic literature has not adequately considered. Secondly, I trace the development of Rav Moshe’s position across his four responsa and situate them within his historical context. Finally, I analyze Rav Moshe’s assumptions about American history and consider how recent scholarship on Thanksgiving’s origins might affect his halachic calculus.
A halachic analysis of Thanksgiving must begin with an accurate account of the holiday’s history. Contrary to popular belief, America’s Thanksgiving tradition did not originate with the first harvest in Plymouth. That moment had little historical significance; the sole primary source appears in an obscure text from 1622 entitled Mourt’s Relation, which remained mostly lost to history until the mid-1800s. This account merely stated the following:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors… [with] many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.
This multi-day celebration with both fowl and venison did not inaugurate an annual Thanksgiving tradition.
In fact, the Pilgrims, more accurately known simply as Puritans, had abolished fixed annual holidays, which they associated with Catholicism. However, Puritans often acknowledged divine providence through days of public fasting or thanksgiving as the situation necessitated. The first harvest did not seem to be one such moment, as the earliest recorded public thanksgiving in New England occurred in 1623 following a drought. In his authoritative biography of American Thanksgiving, James W. Baker traces the evolution of this tradition: “By the end of the seventeenth century a new tradition of regular springtime Fasts and autumnal Thanksgivings existed in parallel to the original practice of declaring special holidays in response to providential events.”James W. Baker, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (University of New Hampshire Press, 2009), 30. This custom eventually coalesced around the seasonal cycle, after the end of the agricultural harvest and before winter began, as the community took stock of the previous year.
Throughout the eighteenth century, the practice spread to other regions beyond New England. After the American Revolution began, Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, declared the first national day of thanksgiving in 1777. And in the new United States, George Washington proclaimed one in 1789. According to Baker’s count, American presidents made a total of ten such declarations until 1815; the practice continued on the state level until Abraham Lincoln resurrected it in 1863 to promote unity during the Civil War. Subsequently, the annual presidential tradition persisted by custom alone, until Congress finally established a group of legal holidays in 1941. None of these texts referenced the Pilgrims, though many of them framed Thanksgiving in general religious terms. Thus, the traditional narrative of Thanksgiving’s origins is incorrect. The historical facts should, in turn, bear on the halachic analysis.
Rav Moshe’s responsa on Thanksgiving drew upon both halachic and historical arguments. It is noteworthy that earlier in his writings, Rav Moshe had movingly described ideas of American exceptionalism. In 1939, two years after fleeing Communist Russia, Rav Moshe delivered a derashah (sermon) on the Torah reading that coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Constitution taking effect in the new United States. As he remarked,
Therefore, the United States, which established in its Constitution 150 years ago that it will not uphold any faith or any ideology, rather, that each person shall do as he desires, and the regime will see that people do not molest one another, is carrying out God’s will. It is for that reason that they have succeeded and become great in our times.Darash Moshe, vol. I, pp. 415-416.
Yet despite his laudatory view of America, Rav Moshe articulated a nuanced and ambivalent approach to Thanksgiving.
Rav Moshe first addressed the issue of Thanksgiving in a responsum in 1963. The questioner had asked whether Jews may host a simcha (festive celebration for a life cycle event) that coincides with a yom eid (non-Jewish holiday), the term used by the Talmud to describe pagan festivities. In the context of his answer, Rav Moshe mentioned, “Their first day of the year [i.e., New Year’s Day] as well as Thanksgiving are not prohibited by law, but a pious person (ba’al nefesh) should be stringent.”Igros Moshe, EH 2:13 (19 Sivan 5723 / June 11th, 1963). Here, Rav Moshe implied two arguments: firstly, that Thanksgiving does not fall under the halachic category of yom eid, presumably because it is not considered a religious holiday; and secondly, that despite a technical permissibility, he nevertheless recommended avoiding even indirectly celebrating Thanksgiving.
This instinct for stringency manifested in Rav Moshe’s second responsum on the issue, written in 1981. There, Rav Moshe ruled that directly celebrating a festive Thanksgiving meal is “certainly prohibited by law” based on the biblical prohibition of chukas akum (following non-Jewish customs).Leviticus 18:3. Although Thanksgiving is not “idolatrous,” it is problematic as “merely emptiness and foolishness.” Rav Moshe clarified that even if Thanksgiving was originally established by “idolaters who included in their words praise for their deity, this is not relevant to later years, since others also began to establish meals on this day that are not relevant to idolatry.” However, Rav Moshe qualified that one may nevertheless incidentally eat turkey on Thanksgiving in a non-festive manner. He also conceded that applying the prohibition of following non-Jewish customs in this context is “not clear” and requires further research.Igros Moshe, OC 5:20 (2 Iyar 5741 / May 6th, 1981).
Yet Rav Moshe’s third responsum on Thanksgiving, written several weeks later, seemed to contradict his previous opinion. In this ruling, Rav Moshe asserted that because “in their religious books this holiday is not mentioned, nor did they obligate a meal, and since it is a memorial day for the people of the state, that one may also rejoice in the state that he came to live here now or earlier,” it is not prohibited to celebrate Thanksgiving with a festive meal. However, he cautioned, “It is certainly prohibited to establish this as an obligation or a commandment; rather, [it must remain] an optional simcha.” As evidence, he referred to a simcha established by the Hasmonean King Yanai,Kiddushin 66a. which Rav Moshe interpreted as a one-time event rather than an annual one. Only in this non-obligatory manner may one continue celebrating Thanksgiving in subsequent years. Rav Moshe emphasized that establishling a fixed annual day of celebrating Thanksgiving violates the biblical prohibition of bal tosif (adding to the Torah’s commandments).Deuteronomy 4:1. In other words, doing so would impermissibly add a new tradition to the Jewish calendar. However, Rav Moshe once again indicated a hint of ambivalence: “And even though one can question [applying] the negative commandment, it is nevertheless a certain prohibition.”Igros Moshe YD 4:11 (14 Sivan 5741 / June 16th, 1981).
Thus, the second and third responsa respectively identify two halachic issues with celebrating Thanksgiving: chukas akum, which ostensibly prohibits even a happenstance celebration; and bal tosif, which seems to pose a problem only for fixed annual celebrations. In his fourth and final responsum on Thanksgiving, written just before the Fourth of July in 1981, Rav Moshe provided a clarification and conclusion of his view on the matter. The questioner, Rav Moshe’s own grandson, had noted that the earlier more stringent ruling seemed to conflict not only with the subsequent responsum but also the authoritative position of Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Rema), who permitted following non-Jewish customs that have a rational basis.Rema, YD 178:10.
Rav Moshe responded that celebrating Thanksgiving is not sufficiently rational to avoid the issue of following non-Jewish customs. His argument strikingly draws upon his understanding of the history of Thanksgiving.
Those men, when they came to this state [i.e., Plymouth], happened to not have anything to eat for some time, so they ate turkey – that is not an important matter for the settlement of America. For there was plenty to eat in America for those who came even then… Since the world already knew about America, other men would have come in boats…and the state of America would have been settled like it was even without this.
Thus, according to Rav Moshe, it is irrational to celebrate centuries later such an insignificant moment that had no impact on the founding of America, and doing so would run afoul of the biblical prohibition against following foolish non-Jewish customs.
However, Rav Moshe nevertheless conceded the possibility that since Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday for non-Jews, and that Jews who celebrate it do not equate it to biblical holidays, perhaps neither chukas akum nor bal tosif would apply. On the other hand, Rav Moshe pointed out that even the ancient Jewish holiday of Purim troubled the Sages until they found Scriptural justification.Ramban on Deuteronomy 4:2; Yerushalmi Megillah 1:7. Rav Moshe elaborated that because in the second responsum he had expressed doubt about the applicability of chukas akum, he noted the issue of bal tosif in the third responsum. In conclusion, Rav Moshe recommended that “it is proper to be stringent like the earlier responsum,”Igros Moshe YD 4:12 (1 Tamuz 5741/ July 3rd, 1981). i.e., to never host a Thanksgiving se’udah.
These four responsa collectively convey the impression of ambivalence toward Thanksgiving, with an instinctual stringency. Rav Moshe’s writings suggest that those who wish to celebrate Thanksgiving have legitimate halachic arguments upon which to rely, but his preference otherwise indicates meta-halachic concerns about maintaining boundaries between Judaism and American culture. In his famous essay “The Cult of Synthesis in American Jewish Culture,” Jonathan Sarna has described how American Jews have long sought to fuse their religious and civic identities by celebrating holidays such as Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July. Perhaps Rav Moshe regarded such cultural integration as undermining Judaism’s typically counter-cultural orientation, even if he himself had somewhat of a patriotic streak. Conflicting attitudes toward the acceptable amount of integration with Western society might explain why other halachic authorities have regarded Thanksgiving as wholly problematic, benign, or even praiseworthy.
In 1983, Rav Moshe famously penned a public letter urging Jews to exercise their civic right of voting: “On reaching the shores of the United States, Jews found a safe haven. The rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights have allowed us the freedom to practice our religion without interference and to live in this republic in safety.” This appreciation perhaps explains why in his third responsum on Thanksgiving, Rav Moshe implicitly sympathized with those who wish to celebrate Thanksgiving to express gratitude toward America, despite his more stringent conclusion.
Rav Moshe’s assumptions about the origins of Thanksgiving deserve closer consideration. Since his ruling depended on an understanding of metzi’us (reality), new factual findings can potentially alter the halachic calculus. Rav Moshe correctly intuited that the first harvest in Plymouth colony lacked historical significance and did not impact the founding of America. However, as Baker’s analysis has shown, the American Thanksgiving tradition did not originate from that moment. Instead, the holiday traces back to Puritan thanksgiving rituals, which in turn annualized and ultimately secularized. Yet Rav Moshe’s analysis also accounted for this possibility. As he noted in his second responsum on Thanksgiving, even if the holiday had religious origins, later followers of the tradition lacked this connection. Rav Moshe’s issue with Thanksgiving did not hinge on its Puritan roots, but rather its apparent lack of rationality.
The issue of rationality raises an intriguing possibility. Rav Moshe’s final responsum implied that if Thanksgiving were based on an event central to the American founding, celebrating it with an annual meal would be a sufficiently rational practice for Jews to imitate. Arguably, the early national Thanksgiving declarations, especially Washington’s, would fall under that category. As Washington’s proclamation put it, his day of Thanksgiving is devoted to expressing gratitude to God for the new nation:
That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks…for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war…[and] for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted.
Thus, while Washington did not establish an annual holiday, one who celebrates Thanksgiving in commemoration of America’s founding might stand on firmer halachic footing.
Alternatively, the precedent of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation might provide a sufficiently rational basis to avoid the issue of chukas akum. As Civil War historian Paul Quigley has shown, the antebellum campaign for a federal day of thanksgiving stemmed from an impulse to promote national unity. Lincoln’s declaration used the power of symbols to bind together a deeply divided nation: “[Thanksgiving] rose to prominence amid the impossible suffering of the Civil War, when Americans needed more than ever to publicly reaffirm their collective relationship with God.” Arguably, by promoting social cohesion, family values, and civic virtues, Thanksgiving might satisfy Rema’s criteria for permitting a non-Jewish practice. However, by dismissing the holiday as an irrational tradition based on a trivial history, Rav Moshe implicitly rejected this argument.
Finally, an even deeper intellectual history of Thanksgiving presents another possible conclusion. The Puritan tradition of designating days of thanksgiving itself drew upon the Hebrew Bible, which Puritans called the Old Testament. In his provocative article “Thanksgiving: A Jewish Holiday After All,” Moshe Sokolow suggests a Jewish origin story that precedes the traditional narrative. Based on Nick Bunker’s book Making Haste from Babylon, Sokolow argues that the “original” thanksgiving took place upon arrival in Plymouth in 1620, when future governor William Bradford recited Psalms 107, which begins, “Give thanks to God for He is good.” Moreover, Bradford’s bible contained the commentary of Puritan scholar Henry Ainsworth, who glossed the verse by referring to Maimonides’ four criteria for reciting birkat ha-gomel (the prayer for surviving a dangerous situation), one of which includes sea travel.Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Berachos 10:8. Thus, argues Sokolow, “Even without turkey and cranberry sauce, this vestige of Jewish influence on the religious mores of the U.S. is worth our acknowledgment and contemplation—and, of course, our thanksgiving.”
However, from a historical and halakhic standpoint, it is difficult to justify celebrating Thanksgiving based on this moment. Others, as Baker noted, have made equally spurious claims of earlier “first” thanksgivings in early American colonies that preceded Plymouth. The arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 arguably had little impact on the American founding. The Plymouth Puritans did not set out to establish the future United States, which they never envisioned, but rather to find religious liberty; they arrived in Plymouth because they accidentally veered off course on their way to the Virginia colony. It is possible that regardless of Plymouth, other Puritans would have founded the colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1630. Thus, Rav Moshe’s argument about irrationality might also apply to the Mayflower’s arrival.
Nevertheless, Sokolow correctly points out that thanksgiving is indeed a Jewish value. Without resorting to invented traditions or ahistorical myths, Jews express gratitude to God every day in prayer. Much like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, which cohere with the Jewish value of honoring one’s parents, Thanksgiving reflects ideas in our own texts and traditions. As Rav Moshe reminded us, American Jews should express gratitude for the religious liberty we have enjoyed in America. May it be God’s will that America continues to serve as a safe haven for Jews.
I would like to thank my dear friend Rabbi Moshe Kurtz for inviting me to present an earlier version of this essay in his podcast series Shu”T First, Ask Questions Later.
|↑1||James W. Baker, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (University of New Hampshire Press, 2009), 30.|
|↑2||Darash Moshe, vol. I, pp. 415-416.|
|↑3||Igros Moshe, EH 2:13 (19 Sivan 5723 / June 11th, 1963).|
|↑5||Igros Moshe, OC 5:20 (2 Iyar 5741 / May 6th, 1981).|
|↑8||Igros Moshe YD 4:11 (14 Sivan 5741 / June 16th, 1981).|
|↑9||Rema, YD 178:10.|
|↑10||Ramban on Deuteronomy 4:2; Yerushalmi Megillah 1:7.|
|↑11||Igros Moshe YD 4:12 (1 Tamuz 5741/ July 3rd, 1981).|
|↑12||Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Berachos 10:8.|