As a Jewish educator and a mother of four very curious children, the question I get the most often this time of year is “Is Thanksgiving a Jewish Holiday?”…and, again, as a Jewish educator and a mother of four children (so I have a tendency to over-analyze everything that comes out of a child’s mouth in order to determine what is really being said or asked), the way that I hear this question is actually two different questions. The first question is “As a Jew, can I celebrate Thanksgiving?,” and the second question is “Is there anything Jewish about Thanksgiving?”
So let’s address both of those questions first…
As a Jew, can I celebrate Thanksgiving?
Although the holiday of Thanksgiving does have roots going all of the way back to the 16th century and the English Reformation, our American version of Thanksgiving really took shape on November 26, 1789 when the first national day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President George Washington as a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” tied to the forming of a new nation. It was not until 1863, however, that President Abraham Lincoln officially set the day of the holiday, and Thanksgiving became regularly celebrated.
Nonetheless, because of its potential religious ties, the question still arises as to whether or not Jews can celebrate Thanksgiving. In 1980, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a 20th century authority on Jewish law, stepped in to try to answer that question, saying that because the holiday of Thanksgiving is not mentioned in religious law books as a religious holiday and because it is a day of remembrance to citizens of the United States of their coming to the country, there is no prohibition in Jewish law of celebrating with a meal or eating turkey. He noted, however, that it is forbidden to establish celebrating Thanksgiving (and eating turkey) as a commandment, so the celebrations should be voluntary.
So, then, the answer to our first question (as a Jew, can I celebrate Thanksgiving?) would be “yes, as long as you are doing so voluntarily and not viewing it as a command.” Incidentally, Rabbi Feinstein does not address mothers commanding their children to eat their vegetables before eating pie, so feel free to make that part of the celebration mandatory.
Is there anything Jewish about Thanksgiving?
The value of giving thanks is very much a Jewish value, deeply rooted in our tradition. Many say the prayer Modeh Ani (I thank) each morning upon awakening, one of the blessings in the Amidah is Hoda’ah (thanksgiving), and there is a custom to thank God at least 100 times a day through various blessings (even including one for after using the toilet!). The concept of Hakarat HaTov (recognizing the good), is prevalent throughout tradition as well, encouraging us to be grateful and to express our gratitude, not only to God, but to our parents, our friends, and others around us.
With this value in mind, the answer to our second question (is there anything Jewish about Thanksgiving?) would be “What could be more Jewish than a holiday solely dedicated to thanksgiving (well, that and eating a lot of pumpkin pie…something for which I know I am thankful every year!)?”
Is Thanksgiving a Jewish Holiday?
So that brings us back to our original question of whether or not Thanksgiving is a Jewish holiday. While it is true that Thanksgiving is not a “Jewish holiday” in the same way that Chanukah or Passover are Jewish holidays, it contains many of the same elements: a reason to gather as a family and community, a ritual meal enjoyed together, and a recognition of our gratitude towards others and our connection across space and time. In this way, Thanksgiving is very much in the spirit of a Jewish holiday.
Dr. Sarah Levy has been involved in the field of Jewish education for nearly fifteen years, currently serving at the Director of Adult Education for the Colorado Agency for Education. She lives in Denver with her husband, Benny, and their four kids.