November — a crisp, chilly month when the cold begins to settle in for the winter. The trees so majestically hued in shades of yellow, orange, and red begin to loose their splendor along with their leaves.
But November isn’t just a time of natural elegance and display. It’s also an American period of thanksgiving.
Every year in the United States the last Thursday in November is designated as a day of appreciation and thanks. This day is nationally recognized as Thanksgiving Day. A day of family gatherings, turkey and gravy, pumpkin pie, parades, and NFL football — Thanksgiving is hard not to enjoy.
But how did it all get started? We all know about the pilgrims and Indians, but how did a turkey barbeque among our ancestors and their neighbors turn into a full-fledged, nationally observed holiday?
During the American Revolution, the first Continental Congress proposed Thanksgiving as a national holiday. They borrowed the idea from a group of pilgrims and Indians who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621 to give thanks for their first successful harvest. Although the holiday never became official, many who favored the American Revolution adopted Thanksgiving and it soon spread throughout the nation.
Thanksgiving became an official national holiday in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a day of gratitude and praise with these words, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
This is a very nice, historic story, but is Thanksgiving permissible and appropriate for American Jews to observe since it’s a holiday instituted by gentiles?
Although there are some rabbis who prohibit the holiday (such as Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, the late rosh yeshiva of Mesivta Chaim Berlin / Kollel Gur Arye) Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, a leading Orthodox authority in the United States during the 20th century, and the Rabbinical Assembly, an international association of conservative rabbis, permit Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving because it is a secular holiday and does not require or include religious practices (the same concept applies to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day).
Secular holidays can be celebrated as long as they are not celebrated with people who integrate religious worship in them and the celebration does not appear to others as a religious ceremony, according to Jewish law.
Not only is Thanksgiving permissible, it is also fitting for American Jews to observe it. It is said that Rabbi Soleveitchik would reschedule his shiur for early in the day on Thanksgiving in order to allow time for the celebration of Thanksgiving.
The main ideas of Thanksgiving — gratitude and appreciation — are chief principles in the Torah and reflect Jewish concepts. In fact, some even believe that the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the pilgrims and Indians was a copy of the Sukkot harvest festival celebrated by the ancient Israelites in Jerusalem.
The above ruling prohibiting religious integration in secular holidays leaves Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving as they please. Nevertheless, many American Jews feel a bit of uneasiness and apprehension in their celebration of that day.
Perhaps this uneasiness is due to the tendency of non-kosher food and Christian content to creep into the holiday. Or maybe it is because Jews feel that they are adjusting their Jewish identity, faith, obligations, customs, and uniqueness to be able to partake in a non-Jewish holiday. Whatever the reason, the question arises: How should Jews celebrate Thanksgiving?
A Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends, Jewish or gentile, is permitted as long as Jewish law is observed. All foods should be kosher and blessings should be recited as usual. In order to add a more Jewish spin to the celebration, Conservative rabbis have composed a mini-service found in the Siddur Sim Shalom that can be read during the meal.
This mini-service includes Psalm 100 and various prayers. It also calls for a time in which everybody around the table lists things for which he or she is thankful. Recognition of Hashem and all that he does for the world is also a main concept that, when added to our gratitude, would enhance the atmosphere of the day.
So this year, as the magnificent month of November arrives and Thanksgiving approaches, American Jews confront the issue of Thanksgiving again. Turkey or no turkey — Thanksgiving is still an important American holiday that should be respected for its concepts and purpose.
No matter how Thanksgiving is celebrated this year in Jewish communities (and even if it’s not), Jews should still remember the enduring words of John F. Kennedy, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”