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Jewish Rituals & Practices: Do Jews Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated at the end of the harvest season to give thanks and blessings to god. While it is celebrated in Canada as well as a number of other countries, Thanksgiving is primarily an American holiday that occurs on the last Thursday of November.

While not an inherently religious holiday, Thanksgiving celebration has caused debate within the Jewish community and illuminates the delicate balance that American Jews hold between their Jewish and American identities.

The first Thanksgiving - attended by 90 native Americans and 50 English Pilgrim settlers - was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. That first Thanksgiving mirrored ancient harvest feasts such as the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the ancient Greek Thesmophorian celebration and the ancient Roman Cerealian rites.

This Thanksgiving day, however, was not an annual event and did not become an American ritual for more than 200 years when President George Washington announced that November 26, 1789, would be a day of thanksgiving and prayer to mark the adoption of the U.S. Constitutions and the establishment of a new government. Even then, Thanksgiving was a one-time deal. It was not until 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national holiday for the last Thursday of each November as a "day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father."

In 1868, in response to a proclamation to celebrate Thanksgiving issued by Pennsylvania Governor John W. Geary that was viewed as "apparently intended to exclude Israelites" from the celebration, Philadelphia’s rabbis condemned the encroachment on the freedom of religion and expressed the sentiment that national holidays should be devoid of religious content.

As decades have passed, Thanksgiving has retained ever less of its original English Pilgrim origins and most American Jews have absorbed the holiday into their own traditions.

Unlike other celebrations, such as Halloween, halacha does not prohibit Jewish participation in Thanksgiving because the holiday has secular, not religious origins and undertones. Jews are forbidden by the Torah to partake in "gentile customs," a prohibition derived from Leviticus 18:3, but most do not consider Thanksgiving to fall in this category.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society; Chabad; Wikipedia