A Rabbinic Guide to the Observance of Thanksgiving
Well no, this isn’t the holiday when we ask questions. But why should Pesach have all the fun. Below are three questions and answers for the Thanksgiving table (2 and 3 are optional for vegans – mea culpa). Wishing everyone a wonderful day of thanks!
Rabbi Bill Siemers
Are there any appropriate Jewish observances of Thanksgiving?
There are not any Jewish liturgies for Thanksgiving of which I am aware. In conservative communities that have a daily minyan, it has become customary to omit the prayer Tachanun, as it is omitted on Shabbat and Festivals. Tachanun is a brief passage of petition in which the head is lowered and we pour out our sorrows and needs. Because of its tone, and because most prayers of petition are not said on special occasions, (this is why Avinu Malkeinu is not said when Yom Kippur is on Shabbat for instance) we skip Tachanun on Thanksgiving in order to recognize the special character of the day as one of joy and gratitude.
Moving from the negative to the positive, the Thanksgiving dinner is an appropriate occasion to express our gratitude for the many blessings with which we have been visited. This can be done with a recitation of the grace after meals (found in all prayer books) or the recitation or study of a favorite psalm. Like other strictly Jewish holidays, we are made aware each Thanksgiving that the greatest gift of all is the friendship and love that we give one another, and this annual gathering of our friends and families is an opportunity to give thanks for the blessings of the year.
How did Turkey get its Hebrew Name “Hoddu”?
The word hoddu is related historically to the word hindu, and was applied to turkeys because of the belief that such birds were encountered in ancient times by Jews in the land of India. It gives rise to a nice pun with hodu – which is the imperative “Give thanks!” in Hebrew, so that on thanksgiving we eat hoddu while urging one another to hodu!
Is Turkey Kosher?
The short answer is – yes.
The kashrut of birds is a particular problem. Unlike domestic land animals or fish, the Torah does not give characteristics that would permit one to distinguish between kosher and non-kosher types of birds – it rather gives lists of birds that cannot be consumed. In the early rabbinic literature, an attempt was made to infer the defining characteristics of kosher and non-kosher birds from the lists that are contained in the Torah (e.g. birds of prey are not kosher), but the application of these inferences by later authorities resulted in much confusion and controversy. The upshot of this was an abandonment of the use of defining characteristics, and instead a reliance on the traditional identification of a particular bird as kosher or not.
This posed a problem for birds found in the New World, such as our friend the turkey. How could any newly discovered bird be considered validated by traditional identification as kosher? The early approaches to the question were confounded by confusion about where the turkey originated, as some authorities relied on the tradition of the Indian Jewish communities to identify the turkey as kosher. (Remember where Columbus thought he was going!) Other authorities have suggested that the traditional and undisputed identification of the chicken as kosher can be extended to the turkey, given the close relationship of the two birds. The bottom line is that despite the problems with understanding precisely why turkey is kosher, the consumption of turkey by Jews has been widespread since the middle ages, and the effort of authorities has been more to explain “why” turkey is kosher than to decide “if” turkey is kosher. There are some communities of Jews that have the tradition of not eating turkey, because of the problems with applying traditional categories of birds to newly discovered species. This stringency applies only to the communities that have preserved it, however, and for the rest of the Jewish world the consumption of turkey is permissible.