Thursday, November 28, 2013

Saying Hallel on Thanksgiving

Rabbi Meir Yaakov Soloveichik
How many people say Hallel on Thanksgiving? I can just hear somebody screaming at me saying, "What? Hallel on Thanksgiving?!" "Are you out of your mind?!" "That is the height of absurdity." "Not only should we not say Hallel on Thanksgiving - the very holiday itself is suspect as it as overtones of a non Jewish religious celebration."  

"Religious modalities of other religions are off limits to the Jewish people." "We should in no way participate with the annual ritual of eating turkey and a big meal on that day, let alone say Hallel. Hallel is reserved for Jewish holidays as mandated by the sages." "Poskim forbid saying it even on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. And you ask if anyone says it on Thanksgiving?!"

Well, yes, I do ask that question. That’s because there is an Orthodox Congregation that has been saying it every Thanksgiving of its existence.

Back in 1654 a group of Jews set sail from Brazil to escape the Portuguese inquisition… and ended up in New Amsterdam. At the beginning of the 18th century a Shul called Shearith Israel was formed by this group. By the year 1768 they hired their first American born minister, Gershom Mendes Seixas. (Not having Semicha he was not officially a rabbi.) So goes the story of some early Jewish settlers of the New World – as related by Rabbi Dr. Meir Yaakov Soloveichik, the newly installed rabbi of Shearith Israel. From his Wall Street Journal article (also available here in PDF): 
In his (Sexias) sermon, delivered Nov. 26, 1789, he expressed his profound gratitude for a government that was "founded upon the strictest principles of equal liberty and justice." In a Thanksgiving Day service several years later, Seixas declared: "As Jews, 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 from following the principles of our religion."
Throughout its history, the members of Shearith Israel have observed Thanksgiving by reciting in synagogue the same psalms of praise and gratitude sung by Jews all over the world on festive days like Hanukkah.  
As Rabbi Soloveichik points out, this year we will of course be joining the members of this Shul in saying Hallel on Thanksgiving. That’s because it coincides with Chanukah. (If I hear the word Thanksgivukkah one more time, I’m going to… well you know.) Rabbi Soloveichik points out both holidays celebrate the freedom to practice one’s religion as they see fit. In the case of Chanukah it is to give thanks to God for returning the freedom to practice our religion via the heroic efforts of the Maccabbees. And in the case of Thanksgiving it is to give thanks to God for the privilege of living in a country that gives us that same freedom. And to express our gratitude to the founding fathers and their spiritual heirs in government today for enshrining and guaranteeing that right in the Constitution.

Such a strongly positive view is not shared by the illustrious Gadol of the last generation Rav Moshe Feinstein. Although he clearly permits eating turkey in a festive meal with family and friends, knowing that it is not a religious ritual in any sense to eat turkey in a festive meal with your family, he still considers the practice as imitating gentile customs (Chukas HaGoy).

I wonder how he would view saying Hallel on Thanksgiving in those years where it does not coincide with Chanukah? (The next time this happens is 79,000 years from now.) My guess is that he would not approve as this attaches a religious ritual to a gentile holiday.

I will be celebrating Thanksgiving with my daughter and her family this year at the home of my Mechutanim (her in-laws). And like my fellow Jews in Shearith Israel, I too am very grateful to God and to this country for the blessings bestowed upon me. How lucky I feel to be living here.

I’m sure that Rabbi Meir Soloveichik will be doing the same. It is indeed his family tradition to do so. His grandfather, my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, ZTL ate turkey on Thanksgiving. As did his great uncle, the Rav who disagreed with Rav Moshe. He held that eating turkey on Thanksgiving does not constitute imitating gentile customs.

And like my fellow Jews in Shearith Israel I too will be saying Hallel on Thanksgiving this year. Although I will not be continuing this Minhag every year, I agree with Rabbi Soloveichik who ends his article with the following: 
(L)ighting candles this Thanksgiving/Hanukkah eve will be a moment for reflecting on the story of our community, on our people's miraculous deliverance from their ancient oppressors, and on the land that opened to us yet another miraculous chapter in our history. We will also ponder our obligation, as Jews experiencing unfettered freedom, to live our lives fully as Jews and as Americans, to remain loyal to our faith while devotedly serving our country.
All this we will do as we lift up our voices to sing, with our fellow Jews around the world, as, perhaps, did the voyagers on the Mayflower upon their own arrival in the New World: "O give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His kindness endureth forever."