New York – Halachic Analysis: Celebrating New Year


    New York – With the gentile New Year fast approaching I would, respectfully, like to take issue with some rulings issued by Rabbi Michael Broyde in a recent article he wrote (Hirhurim – “Is New Years Kosher? December 27, ‘11) concerning both New Year’s and Valentine’s Day. [See] Although I generally find Rabbi Broyde’s halachic analyses to be cogent and well-argued, it is my contention that the rulings in his article are based upon very subtle misreadings and mistranslations of important halachic texts.

    Referring to a previous article he penned, Rabbi Broyde writes:

    “I concluded that Valentine’s day has a clearly Christian origin but that the Christian origin has nearly completely vanished in our secular society. I argued that celebrating Valentine’s Day is quite different from Halloween..the mode of Valentine’s Day celebrations can be explained in our secular society completely rationally, grounded in such notions as sharing love, noting friendship and (perhaps most importantly) eating chocolate. Each of these values are not inherently religious or can be explained rationally, as the Rama (YD 178:1) requires for transposing actions with religious origins into secular practices that Jews can engage in.

    That article made the following observation, which is important to recall. Even when a holiday is completely pagan in nature, halacha still recognizes that this does not make all modes of involvement prohibited. Rabbi Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:11(4)) is logically correct in his observation that:

    ‘Thus, it is obvious in my opinion, that even in a case where something would be considered a prohibited Gentile 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 Gentile custom. So too, it is obvious that if Gentiles were to make a religious law to eat a particular item that is good to eat, halacha would not prohibit eating that item. So too, any item of pleasure in the world cannot be prohibited merely because Gentiles do so out of religious observance.’ ”

    Rabbi Broyde continues: “Thus, I concluded that eating chocolate on Valentine’s Day and even giving chocolate to another, so long as there is not notation of why such is being giving, is permissible, even if one disagreed with the analysis above and thought Valentine’s Day was still a Christian holiday. The same can be said for any activity intrinsically of value, such as a husband expressing his love of his wife, or giving flowers to a beloved — each of which would be a nice gesture all year round. I concluded that it was the conduct of the pious to not overtly celebrate Valentine’s day, although bringing home chocolate, flowers or even jewelry to one’s wife is always a nice idea all year around, including on February 14.”
    I contend that Rabbi Broyde has not only mis-referenced the Igros Moshe (It should read Igros Moshe YD IV 11:3), but has subtly mistranslated his words, thus allowing for an interpretation that Rav Feinstein would never have countenanced.

    Rabbi Broyde’s translation reads: “even in a case where something would be considered a prohibited Gentile 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 Gentile custom.”
    Rav Feinstein’s exact words were, “that even a matter that is certainly considered Chok HaAkum, if it is something where we observe that the entire gentile world does this, (even those) that have no connection at all to their belief and to their customs, rather [they do so] because it is more convenient for the masses to do so, there is already no prohibition of imitating gentile custom.”

    Remarkably, this mistranslation of Rav Feinstein’s responsa is used by Rabbi Broyde to justify giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day. Truthfully, I am rather shocked at this. Rabbi Feinstein was referring to the notion that not covering the head when eating cannot be considered a prohibition of imitating gentile custom because the universal world of non-Jews, as a whole do this – even the non-Christians. This is a far cry from giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day – Februrary 14th. There, it is hardly the universal practice to give chocolates on Februrary 14th. While the giving of chocolates is universally practiced, doing so on February 14th is not universal in cultures that are foreign to Christianity. Rav Broyde has created a leap in Rav Feinstein’s formulation, and has, in this author’s opinion, fundamentally misconstrued the halacha.

    Thus, in this author’s opinion, it is not just an act of the pious to refrain from giving chocolates to one’s wife or a friend on Valentine’s Day – it is entirely forbidden and a Biblical violation of “walking in the ways of the gentiles.” Do not take my word for it, however. Please present both readings of the Igros Moshe to your own Posaik.

    By the same token, I would like to take issue with Rabbi Broyde’s permissive view regarding New Years.

    He writes:

    “According to Rama (YD 148:12), New Year’s day is a Christian Holiday..whose celebration must be avoided and can only be marked when long term life threatening hatred to our community will result if gifts are not given.

    On the other hand, the reality seems to have completely changed. New Year’s Day – like Valentine’s Day and unlike Christmas – seems to have completely lost its Christian overtones. Even in the deep Christian South where I live there are no indicia that connect New Years Day to Christianity. The “first generation” Hindu and Muslim communities in Atlanta – who would never celebrate Christmas – have New Year’s Eve parties. It is obvious that the status of New Year’s Day has changed in the last three hundred years.

    Indeed, in contemporary America there is little religious content or expression to New Year’s Day. Few would classify it as a religious holiday, as there is a clear secular method and reason to celebrate New Year’s day, and thus it has lost its status as a Christian Holiday. Rabbi Feinstein notes this directly himself in Iggerot Moshe (Even Haezer 2:13). He writes with regard to New Year’s:

    ‘The first day of the year for them [January 1] . . . is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [baalei nefesh] should be strict.’”
    Rabbi Broyde continues: “This insight, written in 1963, is even more true nowadays. The Christian origins of New Year’s is even more cloaked now than a half century ago..My own sense is that the central question here is “what do we really mean by celebrating” and that this is a good tool to use to determine how we ought to conduct ourselves as a matter of halacha..So too, I think that one can go to an office New Year’s Eve party when one feels that such conduct is needed and part of the culture of the office one works. Assuming other aspects of Jewish law can be observed, I think that Rav Moshe’s assertion that avoiding such a party is the conduct of the pious is correct, and technical Jewish law permits such.”

    Rabbi Broyde’s reading of Igros Moshe here too, in this author’s opinion, is flawed and erroneous. Rav Feinstein was solely discussing the permissibility of conducting a Bar Mitzvah or Jewish wedding celebration on New Year’s Day on account of the prohibition of Maris Ayin. To this Rav Feinstein writes that it would be the conduct of the pious not to perform it then. Yet, shockingly, nowhere in Rabbi Broyde’s article does he mention this at all. Reading Rabbi Broyde’s article, one thinks that the party Rav Moshe refers to is a New Year’s party, heaven forbid. True, Rav Feinstein seems to be drawing a distinction between New Year’s and Thanksgiving versus December 25th, but only in terms of there not being a prohibition of Maris Ayin in conducting a Jewish celebration on that day. Rabbi Broyde takes this distinction drawn by Rabbi Feinstein and extends it further to permit, on his own accord, attending an office New Year’s Eve party. His placing the words of “avoiding such a party is the conduct of the pious” as an assertion of Rav Moshe Feinstein without having stated that Rav Moshe was solely referring to a Bar Mitzvah or wedding is grossly misleading.

    It is also this author’s opinion that the Ramah in Yore Deah 178:1 cited by Rabbi Broyde wherein he derives four rules of thumb to determine the halachic permissibility of copying certain activities is also misconstrued. To clarify the Ramah’s meaning and intent one must look at the Maharik, the Ramah’s source, and it will be seen that if a custom is observed for the purpose of keeping a gentile tradition – then that too is a violation.

    This, however, requires a longer discussion Generally speaking, this author is in awe of Rabbi Broyde’s vast erudition. However, and with due respect, it is my contention that Rav Broyde’s two permissive rulings here, concerning office New Year’s Eve parties and Valentine’s Day chocolates, are, in fact, complete violations of the Torah law of “following in the ways of the gentiles.” The quotations of Rav Feinstein zatzal have been very subtly (but not willfully) mistranslated and misconstrued. One can certainly understand Rabbi Broyde’s motivation, as an out of town Rabbi who seeks the spiritual welfare of his congregants, but it cannot and must not be at the price of halachic observance.

    The author can be reached at [email protected]

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