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Should Jews Celebrate Thanksgiving?

posted by Brad Hirschfield

This should be a no-brainer, right? Well for a significant number of Orthodox Jews, it’s not so obvious and that fact speaks volumes to the thinking of many in that community. Interestingly, it is precisely those who think the answer should be ‘no’ that are more accurate about the historical origins of the holiday, and I actually have great respect for that even if I totally disagree with the conclusion at which they arrive. But what really makes this question interesting, is that how one answers it, is a kind of Rorschach test which reveals how one thinks about Jews living in a largely non-Jewish culture.
The arguments against observing Thanksgiving are all based on Leviticus 18:3, which reads, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.” Some halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities rule that observing Thanksgiving violates this rule while others do not. The issue which divides them is generally whether they see Thanksgiving as religious or not.
Those who embrace Thanksgiving, do so on the basis that it was “always a secular holiday”, to which anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of history responds, “are you kidding?!”

To whom were the Pilgrims thankful? The whole story is one of deep faith and providence helping the Pilgrims persevere, build cooperative relationships with the native Indians, and create a new life in a new land. In fact, the idea of a secular Thanksgiving would have horrified those who first observed it.
Thanksgiving was, and remains for many including myself, a deeply if not particularistic, religious holiday. And therein lays its greatness. You don’t need to belong to any particular religious group, or even believe in God, to acknowledge the powers greater than yourself which have carried you through the past year and helped you to build your life in positive ways.
Of course, the idea that something can be deeply religious without being unique to the religious group which created it is what so many people miss in their permissive attitude to Thanksgiving. And if the basis of such permission is the willful erasure of the past, then such permission does more harm than good. It tells people that Thanksgiving is okay because it was never “theirs” anyway. Sadly, that approach is diametrically opposed to the narrative which is based upon people being able to share the wisdom and practice of communities not their own.
The real question is why the options are either to ignore the past as a way to build a shared future (the case with those who embrace the holiday) or acknowledge the past and use that acknowledgement to divide us from our neighbors (the case of those who think that Thanksgiving isn’t kosher). We have a third, and far healthier, option.
Let us acknowledge the deep religious roots of Thanksgiving, appreciate that many things which begin as religious migrate into the domain of the secular, and celebrate that in no country have more people from more diverse cultures ever gathered to celebrate both that which they share and the beauty of the many things which differentiate them from each other.
Thanksgiving is sacred to America and should be sacred to Jews who are among the primary beneficiaries of all that this nation has to offer. The reason Thanksgiving should be celebrated is not because we lie about its past, but because in no way is America for Jews, what either Egypt of Canaan ever were. In fact, if there could be a promised land outside the land of Israel, this would be it. No America is not perfect, but the story of those who preceded us in coming here for their own religious freedom and opportunity is surely worthy of celebration. The story is theirs and it’s ours.

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Jack Shattuck

posted November 19, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Torah from Dixie covers this subject admirably.

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posted November 20, 2009 at 11:15 am

The first Thanksgiving was based on the harvest festival in what I would call the Old Testament–Sukkot.
The Mayflower pilgrims wanted to celebrate and live within a Bible based frame of reference. In the England of their day, harvest festivals were based on pagan rituals–bonfires and burning the wicker man (straw man). The Pilgrims thanked God for their bounty, not the seasons or the soltice.
So…Thanksgiving is a Jewish holiday, within an American context!

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Your Name

posted November 20, 2009 at 11:32 am

To a Jew, every day is a day of thanksgiving. We all need to thank Almighty God, both Jew and non-Jew, for his beneficence. Most importantly we should acknowledge His blessings,presence and influence in our daily lives. Make not mistake about it,Thanksgiving
is a wonderful reminder and opportunity for all to pause and thank the source of all our blessings.

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Your Name

posted November 20, 2009 at 11:33 am

To a Jew, every day is a day of thanksgiving. We all need to thank Almighty God, both Jew and non-Jew, for his beneficence. Most importantly we should acknowledge His blessings,presence and influence in our daily lives. Make not mistake about it,Thanksgiving
is a wonderful reminder and opportunity for all to pause and thank the source of all our blessings.

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posted November 20, 2009 at 12:34 pm

I agree with Echohawk. Thanksgiving was the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles [Sukkot]. The Pilgrims believed and observed the Moedim [Vayikra 23]. After the long and difficult crossing, they knew it was the approximate time for its celebration. Similarly, Chanukah is considered the ‘second Sukkot’ due to the inability to observe it while fighting the Assyrians. This is another reason for the eight days, along with the miracle of oil.
Happy Thanksgiving [Sukkot] to all!

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posted November 20, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Thank you all for your comments and insight. Although I’m a Christian I enjoy reading your news letters and your discussions. I find them very inlighting.
I was raised to respect those of the Jewish faith and reminded that many of my faith’s beliefs derived from the Jewish faith (think Old Testiment). And your comments in regards to Thanksgiving and Sukkot reinforces that.
Thank you again and may you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.
Shalom aleichem

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posted November 20, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Yes, Thanksgiving is the Pilgrims’ version of Sukkot. It’s their version of our holiday. Refusing to celebrate it on the grounds that it is now “their” holiday is like an older sister refusing to wear her sweater any more now that the younger sister has “spoiled” it by borrowing it. We do this much too often. Let’s not let our heritage be stolen by our imitators.

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john F. Higgins

posted November 20, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Giving thanks does have a religious connotation to it and if the early Pilgrims used an already established(by the Jews), a day of thanksgiving(Sukkot)…the Jews and all other americans SHOULD be proud to honnor celebrate Thanksgiving Day.

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Dennis Kite

posted November 20, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Every day I give thanks for the gift of life, for being a Jew, for being an American, for the blessings of health, love and family.
America is so vastly different from Egypt & from Canaan & from the vast majority of countries on the planet today. I am so thankful my great grandparents/ grandparent decided to emigrate to our blessed country from Russia, from the Ukraine, from Latvia(They got out while the getting was good and before the doors to America were slammed shut). Life here is far from perfect, but it is way ahead of every other land. Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday, and I see absolutely no reason to not share it among all Americans. May G-d Bless America. Thanksgiving is an excellent way to show the gratitude we should for being citizens in our great nation.

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posted November 20, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I wonder if any of the people who are saying that the Pilgrims deliberately based their celebration of Thanksgiving on the Biblical Sukkot can provide any kind of historical/ textual evidence for this?

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posted November 20, 2009 at 10:59 pm

You have to admit it: Thanksgiving is a uniquely American celebration. And if it is loosely based on our Sukkot observance, so much the better. After all; isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? But, we need Thanksgiving; we take so much for granted without remembering that sometimes faith is all we have to go on, just like the Plymouth settlers. We don’t imitate their faith; we only celebrate our thankfulness for thriving in the face of adversity, somthing all faiths can appreciate.

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posted November 21, 2009 at 4:52 am The Thanksgiving Massacre Is All That Turkey and Stuffing a Celebration of Genocide? By Laura Elliff, Vice President, Native American Student Association Yad Vashem Its the Uncle-Toms/Aunt-Thomasinas Jews still celebrating The Thanksgiving Day Massacre with a dinner. Why, do we Jews insist on supporting that hateful day against the Indigenous People of America aka Native Americans? How would we like the Indigenous People to celebrate our HOLOCAUST in a similar manner? Hello. Note: For some reason we forgot about the FEAST OF TABERNACLES, which is found in the Scriptures for us to celebrate. You can tell the real Jews like me by celebrating only the Jewish Holidays.

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posted November 21, 2009 at 11:13 am

What is the necessity for we Jews to set up so many social barriers concerning the celebration of a holiday giving thanks to God. All people pray to the same God- no matter what name they address Him/Her. Our foolish separateness has caused more harm to ourselves than benefits. No I am not suggesting that we act as pagans or savages devoid of moral fiber. But please – enough foolishness. Enjoy our thanksgiving holiday – and remember the less fortunate amongst us and be charitable.

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posted November 22, 2009 at 1:19 am

The American Indians that celebrated Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims were not Christian but called God “The Great Spirit”. God is always the spirit of truth and is in every culture. I had a Muslim ask me if Thanksgiving were a Christian holiday. I said “no” only the Pilgrims were Christian, not the Indians. America is truly a blessed land and both the Indians and Pilgrims acknowledged God’s omnipotent hand in their blessed harvest. Simplicity is sometimes the most difficult concept for religious people to understand.

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Your Name

posted November 29, 2009 at 11:26 am

Is there anyone out there who might wish to comment on whether (and why) Canadian Jews should/should not celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving (which falls in October, as opposed to the American one in November)? My parents are immigrants from Poland. My sibling and I were born and raised in Montreal, Quebec. They never celebrated Thanksgiving, calling it a Christian holiday. Now that I am married with children, I have still never celebrated Thanksgiving, but have considered it to be more of a secular holiday, as an adult. I have also considered it to be an American holiday, but am told that it is quite proper that Canada have a separate Thanksgiving. I would appreciate some clarification. I wouldn’t mind serving turkey, etc. once a year and calling it Thanksgiving, but not if it’s akin to my Iranian-Muslim friends’ practice of having an Xmas tree and exchanging gifts because they think of Xmas as being a charming, secular, Canadian holiday. Thanks for your input.

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posted October 8, 2010 at 9:04 am

Re; Canadian Thanksgiving:
The Thanksgiving celebrated in Canada in October, is not connected to the American holiday of the same name. In Canada, farmers would harvest their crops and have a dinner with the ‘first fruits’ of their harvest, giving thanks for it.
It has nothing to do with Pilgrims and Indians or Christmas sales or even football.
It is a national holiday and pretty much non religious.
In the religious Jewish world, Thanksgiving Day in Canada often lands in the middle of the High Holidays. One year, Yom Kippur fell on Thanksgiving. It is for this reason that Thanksgiving in Canaa is not usually on the Jewish radar.
There are years, once in a while, when the High Holidays are early (such as 2010), and are over and done with a couple weeks before Thanksgiving arrives in Canada. It is when happens, that SOMETIMES Jewish Canadians do gather for a family dinner.
At my local kosher market yesterday, they have a nice selection of kosher turkeys and pumpkin pies. There were a number of religious Jews buying them, and talking about how they can only have Thanksgiving every few years.
Hope that helps.

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