Thanksgiving Day in 1886. In the Jewish community of Wilmington, Delaware, the 25 families gathered together in their small synagogue on the second floor of the Lieberman building on Market Street to celebrate Thanksgiving. Rabbi Morris Faber conducted the services.
“We join here today to be ever thankful that God Almighty has granted us not only a home in the USA, but also our own small sanctuary, where we can pray together.”
In 1943, my grandfather, Rav Tuvia Geffen, wrote in his diary in Yiddish: “Today the Americans have Thanksgiving. They explain to everyone that it is based on a celebration of the pilgrims many years ago which was based in the Torah. Thanksgiving is for all Americans, including ‘us’ too.”
On November 22 this year, the holiday will be observed in the US as well as by Americans living in Israel
The first president of the United States, George Washington, decided it was most important that the American people offer thanks publicly following all the fighting with the British ending in victory, the creation of the constitution and the first election in which he became president of the new nation. He chose November 26, 1789, as the day the 13 states would observe Thanksgiving.
In his proclamation declaring the event, Washington called “for citizens to gather in houses of worship to offer prayers of gratitude for the blessings of Independence as well as petitions for Divine Guidance and Blessing for the new nation.”
This year, 229 years later, November 22 is the date of the holiday.
The Americans of that era responded positively to the president’s call, including the 2,500 Jews who were citizens of the country. Our American Jewish ancestors, colonial Jewry, not only observed the day, but one of the rabbis, Gershom Mendes Seixas of the Shearith Israel Synagogue in New York, left us his sermon.
“As Jews,” he began, “we are, even more than others, called upon to return thanks to God for placing us in such a country – where we are free to act according to the dictates of conscience and where no exception is taken following the principles of our religion.”
Just imagine Seixas speaking to his congregants in this fashion. Those Jews of the new nation were especially appreciative for what they had been given: freedom. On the shores of America, Jews could live by their “dictates of conscience” and none could challenge “the principles of our religion.” This was a new phenomenon for the Jewish people. In his sermon, Seixas urged his listeners to act in the following manner to give the day more meaning.
“What Jews, who are the special treasure of God, should do is to enter into a self-examination; to relinquish your prejudice against each other; to subdue your passions; to live as Jews ought to do in brotherhood and amity with all our neighbors; to seek peace and pursue it.”
For this New York religious leader, Thanksgiving required much more than just mouthing pious sentiments of appreciation. Every Jew had responsibilities, which he spelled out, with hopes that they would be followed. This sermon text provides for each of us what the Jews heard on that first Thanksgiving held during the colonial period.
NOW LET us move to the modern period when discussions about the holiday were held. Debates have arisen among the Orthodox groups in the US about Jews observing Thanksgiving. These questions were answered by a noted American rabbi in a sermon.
Dr. Norman Lamm is a former president of Yeshiva University. He was the rabbi of the Jewish Center in New York prior to his presidency. On Thanksgiving in November 1962, he was invited to speak at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, the oldest congregation in the US.
To begin his address, Lamm cited Aburdham, a Sephardi scholar of the Middle Ages.
The noted scholar had asked, “Why is it that during the repetition of the Amidah, the Shmoneh Esreh, the silent payer recited three times a day, the cantor, hazan, and the congregation only join together for one blessing, known as ‘modim anahnu lach’?”
In the Jewish ritual, this is called the “modim” blessing, when the congregation chants one version and the cantor chants another.
Lamm provided Aburdham’s answer: “He noted that the other blessings consist of petitions for various bequests and benefits. In the Shmoneh Esreh, mostly a silent prayer, we ask God for wisdom, health, prosperity and peace among other things. ‘When it comes to offering our thanks,’ Aburdham continued, ‘to the Almighty – it is up to all of us to do it ourselves.’”
Lamm made his point in these words, “The expression of gratitude is too personal, too intimate, too significant for a substitute to perform it.”
Having created a basis for giving thanks which Jews do daily, Lamm pointed out why American Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving
“When our fellow Americans repair each to his own house of worship to offer thanks to our Heavenly Father for the blessings of life, freedom, peace and bounty, which we enjoy in our beloved land, we Jews feel quite naturally obligated to turn to God, and in our own way to thank Him,” he says.
“No real Jews,” he continues, “can hear others say modim, thank you, and remain silent on Thanksgiving Day.”
In spite of Lamm’s sermon, there have been questions raised about the holiday itself and Jews observing it. Prof. Michael Broyde, who teaches at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, Georgia, and is a member of the national Beit Din of America, summarized the halachic questions and issues in the following way.
He pointed out that, “Thanksgiving is a secular holiday with secular origins. While some people celebrate Thanksgiving with religious rituals, the vast majority of Americans do not.
“Halacha permits Jews to celebrate secular holidays so long as one avoids doing so with people who celebrate them as religious worship. So long as one avoids giving the celebration of Thanksgiving the appearance of a religious rite, there is no problem in observing it.”
Broyde concludes: “Halacha permits one to have a private Thanksgiving celebration with one’s Jewish or secular friends and family. We are good citizens expressing our gratitude to the USA and celebrating that holiday.”
The scholar also discussed whether the turkey is a kosher fowl. No halachicly approved kosher turkey was eaten in the US until the 1930s. But now the situation, thankfully, is different.
“All the major rabbis, Feinstein, Soloveitchik, Hutner prepared responsa on this matter. Despite the fundamental difficulty with permitting turkey, since it is not listed in the Torah, all the responsa rule that this bird can be eaten.” Broyde notes. “Unless one has a specific family custom to refrain from eating turkey, to forbid its eating is ‘morally wrong.’
“The turkey is no longer new and its kosher status has been addressed by both the great and not-sogreat minds during the last 150 years and has received near universal endorsement,” Broyde says.
So the American Jews can enjoy Thanksgiving and have their turkey too.
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