23 Nov TURKEY AND THANKSGIVING
Much has been discussed over the years regarding Thanksgiving dinner. We will discuss whether such a party is allowed, and if turkey may be served. The underlying point of the debate is whether Thanksgiving is considered a religious or secular holiday. In order to determine this, we need to know the history of the Thanksgiving holiday. In addition, we will discuss the kashrus of birds in general and turkey specifically.
In order to determine if eating turkey at a Thanksgiving dinner is permitted, we need some background into the halachos of following in the ways of the non-Jews.
The Torah forbids following the ways of the non-Jews. The Rambam writes that one should be different than the non-Jews in his actions, knowledge and in his understanding. The Chinuch says the reason for this mitzvah is to distance the Jews from the non-Jews. There is a major dispute among the Rishonim and Achronim as to the parameters of this issur. A practice which the non-Jews do for their avodah zarah is forbidden for a Jew, even if the Torah says it is a Jewish custom. The Maharik writes that non-Jewish practices whose reasons and origins cannot be found are still forbidden to Jews, since it can possibly stem from avodah zarah. Furthermore, all immodest practices of the non-Jews are forbidden to a Jew. Most poskim agree with the guidelines of the Maharik. However, the G’ra says that we may only imitate a practice which possibly originated in Jewish circles, and was then adopted by the non-Jews.
According to the lenient approach (which the halacha follows), foolish but secular customs are permissible so long as they have a reasonable explanation and are not immodest.
The Opinion of Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l
In one teshuva, Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l maintains the following: “Concerning the question of celebrating any event on a holiday of non-Jews, if the holiday is based on religious beliefs by the non-Jews, such celebrations are prohibited if deliberately scheduled on that day; even without intent, it is prohibited because of maris ayin. . . The first day of year for them [January 1] and Thanksgiving are not prohibited according to law, but pious people should be stringent.” Therefore, one should preferably not schedule a chasuna or a Bar Mitzvah on the night of Thanksgiving, since it may be maris ayin. However, a seuda for a Pidyon Haben or a Bris Milah is permitted, since it is obvious that the seuda is a seudas mitzvah. Nevertheless, one may schedule a chasuna on Thanksgiving because many people are off from work that day.
In another teshuva he writes (paraphrased), “In regards to joining a Thanksgiving party, since this is not brought down in the non-Jewish writings as a holiday, and it is just a remembrance of those who lived here, there is no issur to make a meal and eat turkey at the meal. However, it is forbidden to make this a required act, but it should be voluntary, which means not all the time – each year. In addition, there is also a problem of adding mitzvos . . . even though one can question the source, it is still a real prohibition.”
Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l says the following in regard to the non-Jews doing something they enjoy (this was said in regard to going without a head covering). “Therefore, it is obvious, that even in a case where something would be considered a prohibited non-Jewish custom, if many people do it for reasons unrelated to their religion or law, but rather because it is pleasurable to them, there is no prohibition of imitating non-Jewish customs. So too, it is obvious that if non-Jews were to make a religious law to eat a particular item that is good to eat, halacha would not prohibit eating that item. Any item of pleasure in the world cannot be ossur because non-Jews do it out of religious observance.”
According to this, if a non-Jew eats turkey because he enjoys it then there is no need for a Jew to refrain from eating it either.
In yet another teshuva Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l seems to take issue with celebrating Thanksgiving. He says the following: “The reason why it is forbidden to make a party on this day is because one is going in the ways of the non-Jews, even if this is not a religious holiday. The non-Jews do it for no reason. Nonetheless, eating turkey is permitted.
Clearly, Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l does not agree to Thanksgiving celebrations, but places no restrictions on eating turkey on this day.
Opinion of Harav Yisroel Belsky Shlita
Harav Yisroel Belsky Shlita adds the following: “If such parties were made as a sign of patriotism to the United States, it would be acceptable for Jews to make them as well as a sign of loyalty to their host country. This does not seem to be the case however, and there is no reason that a Jew should make them.”
Approaches of Other Gedolim
Harav (J.B.) Soloveitchik zt”l permitted turkey on Thanksgiving. The following are the words written by Harav Herschel Schachter Shlita in his sefer on the rulings of Harav (J.B.) Soloveitchik zt”l: “It was the opinion of Harav Soloveitchik that it was permissible to eat turkey at the end of November, on the day of Thanksgiving. We understood that, in his opinion, there was no problem that turkey did not lack a tradition of kashrus (see later on in this article) and that eating it on Thanksgiving was not a problem of imitating gentile customs. We also heard that this was the opinion of his father, Harav Moshe Soloveitchik zt”l.”
The opinion of Harav Dovid Cohen Shlita is that to eat turkey for the sake of a holiday is prohibited by the rule of Tosfas in Meseches Avodah Zarah since it is improper to follow an irrational rule of the non-Jews. Nonetheless, there is no prohibition for a family to get together on a day when people do not go to work and to eat together. They may eat turkey because they enjoy it, but not for the sake of thanks. Nevertheless, the spirit of the Chachomim does not approve of such conduct, since it appears as if they are following the ways of the non-Jews.
There are some who felt that Thanksgiving dinner should be avoided. However, the custom of many people in Klal Yisroel is to eat turkey on Thanksgiving (see below regarding the kashrus of turkey). As mentioned above, one should not have a party.
Davening Later on Thanksgiving
Some poskim maintain that one should not change the regular time for davening to a later time even though it is a not a work day. However, making a later minyan is permitted if it is not at that time on a regular (non-holiday) day. Others maintain that since we all know that the reason for davening later is because everyone is home from work and they may wish to sleep later they do not focus on the cause of why they are off from work. Harav Yisroel Belsky Shlita says if one normally davens late when he has no work (i.e. Sunday) then he may do so on a legal holiday such as Thanksgiving as well.
Attending a Thanksgiving Parade
The question of observing or attending a Thanksgiving Day parade is an interesting one. It depends on the following definition: If Thanksgiving is a non-Jewish holiday, it would be prohibited to participate or benefit in any way from the parade honoring the day. If one concludes that Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, there would seem to be no problem in attending a parade, as a Thanksgiving Day parade is no different from an Independence Day parade. Although it may be permitted to go to a Thanksgiving parade it is not with the spirit of a Jew to attend such parades. One who has young children who insist on going to the parade do not have to refuse.
Kashrus of Turkey
As mentioned above, many people have the custom to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. However, the kashrus of turkey is a complicated issue.
Kosher Signs – Birds
There is a discussion in the poskim if there is a mitzvah d’raisa or d’rabannan to check birds for signs in order to maintain if the bird if kosher or not.
The Torah identifies twenty-four classes of birds which are not kosher. If a bird is not one of the twenty-four it is kosher. However, we cannot clearly identify these non-kosher birds. Therefore, in order for a bird to be kosher it has to have certain simonim. The Torah does not give any identifying signs. However, the Chachamim provided us with a way to tell if a bird is kosher or not. Any bird which is a dores, a predator, is not kosher. Kosher birds have the following signs: an extra finger, a crop, and the inner layer of the bird’s gizzard can be peeled off by hand. It should be stated that not all kosher birds have all four signs. There is a discussion in the poskim if a kosher bird needs all four signs or if one or a couple or a few are enough. If one knows that a specific
bird is a dores then even if it has any of the kosher simonim the bird is not kosher.
A number of poskim maintain that a bird with the correct simonim is kosher even if there is no mesorah and no proof that it is not dores. The Gemora mentions a story that certain people in a town ate a non-kosher bird because they though the bird was kosher. Therefore, we only eat a bird with a mesorah that it is kosher and was eaten by Jews throughout the ages in that place. The Rama says this is the custom and it may not be changed. If a bird has a mesora then there is no need to check if it has any of the simonim which indicate its kashrus status. However, if one finds that it is a dores then he should not accept the mesora. The Aruch Hashulchan uses the word “chalilah” to permit a bird without a mesora.
Who is Qualified to Testify on a Kosher Bird
One may only accept testimony that a specific bird is kosher from one who is both a chacham and a baki. Some say that there is no one around today who would qualify for this.
Mesora in a Town
Once a mesora is established in a certain town one can be very lenient regarding this as follows: The Shulchan Aruch says one who comes from a town where there is no mesora on a bird and goes to a place where there is a mesora can eat there even if he plans on coming back. In addition, if his hometown has a mesora on a bird and he goes to a town where there is no mesora on the specific bird he may eat the bird in the latter town. However, this is only if he plans on returning to the first town.
There are those who maintain that one who is in a town where there is no mesora on a bird should not eat the bird even if there is a mesora on the bird in another town. The custom is to be lenient.
Relying on Names
Many poskim are of the opinion that one cannot rely on a name of a bird for a mesorah. The reason for this is because a species which was called by a specific name hundreds of years ago may not be the same today. There is a discussion if the mesora can be transmitted with diagrams or verbally.
Goose – Duck
There are those who maintain that if a bird has a wide beak and feet (goose, swans or duck) it is known that it is not a dores and permitted if it has the other three simonim as well. However, the Rama says that we should not rely on this if it does not have a mesora.
The Gemora says that a kosher and non-kosher animal cannot interbreed and produce viable offspring. There are those who maintain that this may apply to birds. Based on this, some opine that a bird which breeds with kosher birds and looks like a kosher bird may be eaten even if there is no mesora on it. Others are not convinced that this is a valid argument.
The opinion of the Avnei Nezer is that if an egg of a specific bird is identical to another bird it is a sign that they are from the same species. Based on this, if the egg of an unknown bird is identical to a known kosher bird, the unknown bird may be eaten without a mesora. Nonetheless, this leniency was not accepted by other poskim.
Other Birds (Pheasant, Muscovy Duck etc.)
Many poskim dealt with the permissibility of eating other birds and questioned their mesora status. This discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but references may be found in the footnotes.
Chickens were eaten as early as the seventh century BCE. The chicken is a kosher bird. There have been many poskim who discussed the different kinds of chickens. Most referred to a chicken as a “kibitzer hen.”
Mesora on Turkey
The mesora on turkey has some unique twists.
Turkey is indigenous to America, and was brought to Europe as a product of trade with the new land. It was at first thought to be the larger American version of the European chicken. Since Columbus thought he had landed in India, the bird was called tarnagolet hodu in Hebrew and hendika hen in Yiddish, both of which mean Indian chicken.
How can we consume turkey if it apparently does not have a mesora? We know that Jews today eat turkey but why? In addition, turkey eggs are larger and different than other kosher birds and it is difficult to crossbreed them with other chickens. Therefore, the above heterim do not apply, and its permissibility remains in doubt. Nonetheless, the poskim offer various reasons to permit turkey. We will list them below:
Some argue that the Rama only requires a mesora on a bird which was not eaten by Jews in the past. However, a bird which was eaten for many years and has all three simonim of a kosher bird is permitted even according to the Rama. There is no reason to say that all the people who ate turkey did so in error. Others say that we do not hold like the Rama’s opinion, and if a bird has the simonim which indicate a kosher status we may eat it.
The Meishiv Davar says that when the turkey (indik) was brought from India there were questions regarding its kosher status, and therefore people refrain from eating it. However, since the majority of people accepted it as kosher, unless there is evidence that it is not kosher we are not going to say that it is prohibited (especially not to tell people who where eating it for many years that they were doing so in error). The Arugas Habosem says that the mesora is only required to prove that it is not a dores – a predator. If the bird is monitored for at least twelve months one may rely on the kosher status of the bird even without having a mesora on it, as it obviously is not a predator.
The Mei Be’er maintains that we can rely on the Jews of India, the place of origin of the turkey, who had a clear mesora dating back to Moshe Rabbeinu that the turkey was kosher. The only concern that ever existed was if one can rely on the Indian mesora, and he maintains that it is indeed reliable.
Both the Kaf Hachaim and the Zivchei Tzedek say that it originated from India and is permitted.
The Tzemach Tzedek says the fact that a specific bird is eaten is a form of mesora.
The Devar Halacha says that the Rama required a mesora only for a new category of birds, but turkey is the same category as a chicken even if there are some differences.
Some say that from the fact that turkey entered the Jewish menu without an apparent mesora indicates that the Gedolim in those days did not hold like the Rama and it was enough that the bird had the simonim which indicates its kosher status. There are those who say that turkey was accepted before the Rama was born (1540). Therefore, there is no need for a mesora since that rule was not yet imposed at that time. However, this is a chiddush since there are poskim who maintain the need for a mesora even before the Rama’s times.
In his discussions about Thanksgiving, Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l indicated that there is no issue with eating turkey.
Although turkey does not have a mesora, many poskim maintain that it is permitted.
There were those who refrained from eating turkey because of the uncertainties regarding the mesora issue. It is reported that Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l did not eat turkey.
Most major kashrus agencies both in America and in Eretz Yisroel give hashgachas on turkey.