Halloween and the Jews

Here comes Halloween! For some Americans, this is THE holiday, more than July 4, more than Thanksgiving, more than even Christmas. People plan their costumes months in advance, lay in supplies of candy for trick-or-treaters, and decorate their front yards.

The origins of the holiday go far back in European history. Some say it originated in the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which was then re-cast into the Western Christian calendar of All Hallows’ Eve, a prelude to the holy day All Saints Day on November 1. As a little Catholic kid, I grew up with All Saints as a “holy day of obligation” – a day when we got off school to attend Mass. It was a very big deal, and Halloween was linked to it.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Halloween isn’t a Jewish festival, and its origins are pagan and Christian. What’s a Jew to do about Halloween?

My own practice is to have some candy ready, should little children stop by. It isn’t a Jewish holiday, but hospitality is a Jewish value, and I’ll be darned if I am going to turn children away from my door in disappointment. I don’t decorate, I don’t make a big deal of it, but if someone rings my doorbell in search of a goody, they’ll get a goody. This isn’t my holiday, but I can practice Jewish hospitality in the midst of it.

Here’s why I don’t dress up or decorate for Halloween:

  • “Trick or Treat” does not match up with Jewish values. Sure, the treats can be hospitality, but the threat of mischief – even jokingly – smacks of extortion.
  • Judaism already has a costume holiday for jokes and mayhem. Come Purim, I’ll dress up and get crazy and do it within the tradition.
  • I grew up Catholic, observing All Saints Day. For me, Halloween’s Christian origins are real and apparent.
  • I’m busy! I have Shabbat every week, I am still recovering from the High Holy Days and Sukkot, and before long it’ll be Chanukah. Really celebrating the Jewish year gives me plenty of holidays already.

I can hear some readers saying, “Oh, rabbi, don’t be such a spoilsport! It’s a secular holiday!” or even “Rabbi, it’s easy to say all this, you don’t have young children.”  I hear that. It’s hard to stand back from colorful, fun celebrations. But just as I can enjoy my neighbor’s Christmas lights, I can enjoy her Halloween decorations without needing some of my own.

There are many holidays I don’t celebrate because they aren’t mine: BeltaneChinese New Year, Eid al Fitr, or any of the many Hindu festivals, and Easter. I live in the wildly diverse SF Bay Area, and I have friends who are Wiccan, Chinese-American, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. I might be invited over for a holiday, and that’s cool. I’ll return invitations come Passover and Sukkot.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you and your family. But let me suggest a question you might ask: if you make time for Halloween, do you make time for Shabbat? Are you going to make just as big a deal of Purim? What are your plans for Chanukah? For Passover?

We have our own round of holidays and festivals, and they can keep a Jew pretty busy.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

9 thoughts on “Halloween and the Jews”

  1. Thinking back to growing up in the 50s/60s, in Scotland, it was “the same but different”…..no pumpkins – we made neep lanterns( a hollowed out swede. MUCH harder to scoop out than a pumpkin!) and children didn’t trick or treat; we “went ‘guising”(from disguise: dressed up, same kind of thing, but with a different feel to it. You’d knock on a neighbours door, then ask, “Are ye needin’ any guisers?” and would be invited in, where you’d do your ‘party piece’….sing a wee song, or a dance, or something similar, after which,you’d get some nuts, an apple,a tangerine….don’t remember getting sweeties,but maybe others did.

    You’d go with a friend, and just to houses of glom you knew….neighbours, parents friends, etc. we lived in a council estate in Glasgow,and most folk knew most folk…and my Mums friends were known as Auntie Beattie, Auntie Anne, etc….”courtesy aunts”, it was called, as they weren’t related, but being our Mums friends, they were more than just neighbours. Hope that all makes sense….

    Sometimes you’d go to a party, where there’d be games and songs and dookin’ for apples….all in all, like I say, ….the same, but….different. You had to earn your reward: it was fun, nice, kind, happy. I didn’t have any religious affiliation growing up, and it was a nominally Protestant area, with a sprinkling of Catholics, and it was much more of a thing in Scotland than England, as far as I know.

    I think it really caught on, with the pumpkin stuff, and more like your way, later….into the eighties, maybe, not sure.

    Anyway, a small snapshot into the life of a wee lass growing up in Glasgow, over fifty years ago…..

      1. Oh, I loved that…..made me snort with laughter! Yes, rutabaga…..aka a “neep”, which is short for turnip. So funny. Thank you…..really needed a smile…..things a bit on the difficult side right now. Hope you’re feeling lots better, and thanks for everything. It’s so nice to feel this connection, away over the world….I know not everyone uses computer on Shabbat, and no disrespect intended by doing so now – can’t remember if you do or not: I do, but try my best to respect those who don’t,by not writing or emailing them on Shabbat.
        Alex, Spock and Data

  2. I’m a fairly recent (compared to lifespan to date) convert to Judaism, so I grew up celebrating Halloween in the secular US kind o’ way. I still love it, although I don’t dress up any more or do a big decorating thing beyond carving a pumpkin. In my urban Northern California existence, where despite our claims of being modern and evolved with respect to such things we still look at each other with deep suspicion most of the time, especially strangers and those of a noticeably different ethnic background, this is the one day of the year where we are willing to throw that all aside for a few hours. We open the door with unreserved enthusiasm, fuss over the adorability of the little ones, smile at and make conversation with people we don’t know, even indulge the tall early teens carrying pillowcases for their candy who haven’t bothered/been able to dress up beyond their customary daily garb of “disenfranchised urban youth.” It’s the one thing that, more than anything else, gives me hope that maybe someday we’ll be able to do that for a few more hours, a few more days, a few more weeks… you get the drift.

  3. I am pleased that you have made this post. For me, Halloween is pagan and upsetting, and usually I go out for the evening, giving the message to ‘trick or treaters’ that the house is dark, not decorated, and obviously unoccupied at the moment.
    The only thing good about it is the sale on candies afterward! 😉

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