Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Our office will be closed and our own evening minyan canceled but if you need to pray with a minyan a neighboring congregation has one available. While non-Orthodox congregations uniformly close their offices and religious schools and so on for Thanksgiving, the holiday remains somewhat controversial within elements of the Orthodox community. I want to emphasize that my exploration below is of intellectual interest only and I both celebrate and encourage the celebration of the holiday.
What could possibly be wrong with Thanksgiving? In Leviticus 18:3 we are commanded not to copy the practices of the land of Egypt which we had left nor the land of Canaan to which we were going, and not to follow their laws. Halacha has codified this verse to mean that we are forbidden to imitate non-Jewish religious practices (“hukkat ha-goy”) and this concept has been used by Haredi (“ultra Orthodox’) halachic authorities to forbid everything from having the bimah at the front of the synagogue to sermons in the vernacular. So if we conclude that Thanksgiving is rooted in non-Jewish religious practice, it would be forbidden for Jews to observe it.
There have been American Jewish halachic decisors who have ruled against the observance of Thanksgiving. The most prominent was Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, the long-term head of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn. He said that the observance of an annual holiday based in the Christian calendar was closely associated with idol worship and thus prohibited.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was probably the greatest halachic authority in the history of the American Jewish community. He said that Thanksgiving was a secular holiday (similar to July 4th) and it was permitted to observe it but in order to avoid transgressing the prohibition of “bal tosif” (adding mitzvot not commanded in the Torah) it was a good idea to skip it every once in a while. His concern seems to be that by observing Thanksgiving every year we were creating the impression that it was a religious obligation to do so.
On the more Modern Orthodox end of the spectrum, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik emphasized that out of gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, we affirmatively should observe Thanksgiving. Rabbi Soloveichik was the head of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University in New York but he lived in Boston. His weekly advanced Talmud class was always on Thursday and while he taught on Thanksgiving, he would always cut his class short so that he could get to Laguardia Airport and catch the air shuttle back to Boston for his family’s Thanksgiving meal. It should also be noted that the oldest congregation in the United States, Shearith Israel (“The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue”) in New York has had a special Thanksgiving morning service since the first Thanksgiving proclaimed in 1789 by George Washington. They even recite an abbreviated Hallel (Psalms of Thanksgiving) during that service.
Within some elements of the Haredi community there still remains a certain ambivalence about Thanksgiving. When Keleigh and I lived in Baltimore we lived in a mostly-Orthodox neighborhood and had a lot of Orthodox friends including some on the more Haredi end of the Orthodox spectrum. We learned that one of the bright dividing lines between Haredi and modern Orthodox schools was Thanksgiving. The modern Orthodox schools, like most of American society, were closed on Thanksgiving and the day after. The Haredi schools were open but only for half a day. Both modern Orthodox and Haredi schools had dual curriculums with general studies for half a day and Jewish studies for the other half. The Haredi schools had their Jewish studies on Thanksgiving (and Christmas) and expected the Jewish studies teachers to teach on that day. The general studies teachers were not necessarily Jewish and, if Jewish, not necessarily observant and they were not expected to teach on that day.
As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 at the shul (not this week, due to Thanksgiving.) You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at email@example.com or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian