Should Jews Celebrate Trick or Treat? By Rabbi Judy Chessin
Every October some American Jewish organizations warn us NOT to dress our children in costumes because “observance of Halloween is not Jewish.” What, we may wonder, could possibly be wrong with dressing up our children and sending them to gather candy and treats from our neighbors?
The controversy surrounds Halloween’s origins. Halloween is derived from the Celtic festival which marked the official end of summer. Many superstitions were associated with this auspicious time including the belief that the spirits of the dead wandered around looking for bodies to inhabit. Ancient Celts dressed up in costumes, making loud noises to trick, and scare away the spirits.
Around the 5th century C.E., the Roman Catholic Church gained dominance over Europe. Unable to wean the people away from this favorite pagan folk festival, the Church instead reinterpreted November 1 as a day to honor the saints of the Catholic Church and renamed it “All Saints Day.” The evening before, October 31, was called “All Hallows Eve” and became an auspicious night on which to pray for the dead. People would go door-to-door requesting small cakes in exchange for reciting prayers for the deceased.
Since, Halloween’s origins derive from long forgotten Celtic and early Church customs, what is wrong with Jewish children participating in America’s secularized version of the festival? To most non-Orthodox Jews there is nothing wrong with celebrating Halloween. Jewish law does not forbid our children from participating in a secular night of frivolity alongside their neighbors, as long as their safety is insured.
Yet other Jews argue that Halloween’s witches, demons and ghosts are the very philosophic antitheses of Judaism. Any festival that celebrates and glorifies violence and death is diametrically opposed to the life-affirming impulse of Judaism. While magic and superstition have always played a role in Jewish folklore, normative Judaism shuns magic and its implication that humans can manipulate natural events. Jews teach that such power resides only with God.
Finally, it is argued that sending our children out to scavenge for piles of candy sends an inappropriate message of greed, gluttony, and acquisitiveness.
Of course, Jews have our own wholesome day for costumes and treats in Purim. In many ways, Purim is the antithesis of Halloween! While Purim gives Jews permission to don costumes and enjoy tasty treats, it nonetheless teaches social responsibility. While we treat ourselves with sweets, we also send food packages to our neighbors (mishloach manot) and gifts to the poor (matanot la’evyonim). Additionally, while we wear costumes, Purim’s main theme is unmasking. Esther (from the Hebrew root s-t-r, or hidden) reveals her Jewish identity to save her people, Haman is unmasked as an enemy, and even God, whose name never appears in the text, is revealed through the Divine Providence of Jewish history
Whether or not we choose to go door-to-door on Halloween, let us use this and every day to recall Judaism’s fundamental charge: to hallow God’s eternal presence day-in-day-out; and to proclaim the Jewish commitment “To Life” lador-vador.