Is Thanksgiving Kosher?

Applying Jewish law to Turkey Day.

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The Approach of Rabbi Soloveitchik

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also agreed that Thanksgiving was not a Gentile holiday, and ruled that it was permissible to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, in his intellectual biography of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Nefesh HaRav, writes:

"It was the opinion of Rabbi Soloveitchik that it was permissible to eat turkey at the end of November, on the day of Thanksgiving. We understood that, in his opinion, there was no question that turkey did not lack a tradition of kashrut and that eating it on Thanksgiving was not a problem of imitating gentile customs. We also heard that this was the opinion of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik."

Others have also recounted that Rabbi Soloveitchik ruled this way, and that he found it difficult to comprehend how one could consider Thanksgiving a Gentile holiday or that it was prohibited to celebrate it.  Indeed, there were instances when Rabbi Soloveitchik implied to his students that he and his family celebrated Thanksgiving, although shiur [class] was always held on Thanksgiving.

The Approach of Rabbi Hutner

An exactly opposite approach to the rulings of Rabbis Feinstein and Soloveitchik appears to have been taken by Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner. Rabbi Hutner argues that it is obvious and apparent that--whatever the merit of celebrating Thanksgiving the first time in the 1600s--the establishment of an annual holiday that is based on the Christian calendar is, at the very least, closely associated with idol worship and thus prohibited.

Rabbi Hutner argues that such a celebration becomes a "holiday" through the creation of an annual observance and celebrating Gentile holidays is obviously wrong. Rabbi Hutner concludes:

"In truth, one must distance oneself from these types of customs and even from those events that are similar to these types of customs . . . The truth is simple and obvious."…

Conclusions

Three conclusions to this article are worth noting:

Three basic approaches are taken by contemporary decisors (poskim) on the question of celebrating Thanksgiving. Some rule that Thanksgiving is not a Gentile holiday, but yet limit "celebration." They would, apparently, permit eating a turkey meal. Others prohibit any form of involvement in Thanksgiving, as they rule it a Gentile holiday. Yet others view the day no different from Independence Day and allow any celebration appropriate for a secular observance.

Indeed, there remains a basic dispute that permeates this review and divides contemporary American halakhic authorities of the last 75 years. The relevant issue is whether it is appropriate to distinguish between "secular society," "Gentile society," and "idol-worshiping society" in modern American culture. The validity of this distinction--which was not generally made by the decisors of Eastern Europe 200 ago for the society of that time and place--is extremely relevant to a broad variety of halakhic issues related to contemporary American society.

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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.