Every year, my children come home from Hebrew School telling me that their teachers told them that they should not go “trick or treating” on Halloween, and that Halloween is not for Jewish children. I tell them that there is nothing wrong with Halloween — it’s American, it’s fun and it’s what we have always done. Now I’m starting to wonder. Is there anything wrong with Jewish children going out on Halloween night trick or treating?
As Americans, we have many privileges, including the privilege of additional holidays — not that we need any more. We already have quite ample cause for overeating and deviating from the regularly scheduled program of life. Human beings in general crave celebration and ritual however, hence the “Hallmarkatization” of our calendar.
In lieu of a commonly shared ancient religion, we in the U.S. have developed a civil religion. We share the quasi-secular celebrations of New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and the obviously civil observances of Veteran’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, and Memorial Day, to name a few. Then we have the unquestionably religious holidays of Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras and Easter. These occasions bring out the exasperatingly pervasive color-schemed cards and elaborate decorations.
Discussions about Jews observing New Year’s, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day occur annually. Now, I suppose, is a good time for the Halloween conversation. The conflicts with New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day and Halloween are unlike those with holidays that are clearly religious in origin. Current prevalent observances are mostly secular in nature. Because of this haziness, the question around their observance is up for discussion and halachic scrutiny.
The accepted approach toward Thanksgiving is that it is permissible to feast on turkey, and even laudable to join in the festivities since the religious nature of its origin is less than compelling. Many find celebrating New Year’s Day inappropriate on account of its connection to the religious observances related to Christmas. Check out Wikipedia for more details.
Valentine’s Day, romantic though it may be, is a day that commemorates the death of Christian martyrs and as such its religious origins are clear. The argument offered on behalf of Jewish observers of Valentine’s Day is that there is little or no connection to its origin in its modern day practices. However, the allure of Valentine’s Day, chocolate notwithstanding, is small-time compared to Halloween.
The clamoring for Halloween fun is completely different. Children are primed for parties, haunted houses, costumes and vast amounts of candy wherever they go. Supermarkets, schools, and even doctors’ offices urge participation in the revelry. And in case, by any stretch of the imagination, you have missed it, don’t worry: television shows and advertisements comprehensively remedy that oversight. The issue of Halloween is, for many of us, pressing and contentious.
Jewish law concerning the observance or participation in holidays whose origin is of a religious nature is based on this verse from Leviticus 18:3: “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statues.”
This “neither shall we walk in their statues” is a big deal. Following the threads of halachic analysis from the Talmud, to Talmudic commentaries up through the Code of Jewish law, we learn that if a seemingly innocuous practice has its origins in a pagan custom or has a taint of an idolatrous derivation, then the activities are forbidden.
Even with just a cursory glance at encyclopedic entries on Halloween, we quickly learn that Halloween has quite the Pagan history. Here are some snippets from our beloved Wiki: “The term Halloween is shortened from All-hallow-even, as it is the evening of/before ‘All Hallows’ Day,’ also known as ‘All Saints’ Day.’ It was a day of religious festivities in various northern European Pagan traditions. Halloween is particularly popular in Ireland, where it is said to have originated, and it is known in Irish as ‘Oíche Shamhna’ or ‘Samhain Night.’ Pre-Christian Celts had an autumn festival, “Samhain ‘End of Summer,’” a pastoral and agricultural ‘fire festival’ or feast, when the dead revisited the mortal world, and large communal bonfires would hence be lit to ward off evil spirits.”
There is a lot more that makes it abundantly clear that the origin of Halloween is undeniably Pagan.
This said, it is also quite obvious that very few happy chirpy little American children experience the holiday within a Pagan context — they merely wish to have a fun day dressing up and getting candy. What are Jewish parents to do?
We certainly do not want to build resentment, bitterness and hostility toward Judaism by giving our children the experience of being denied the fun day of Halloween. What we need to do is build the Jewish identity of our children and help them to not feel that they are missing out by not participating in Halloween. If something is taken away, then something else must be provided in its stead. The Jewish child that grows up with a rich Jewish home life feels few if any pangs of a Halloweenless childhood.
Here are a few pointers to bolster your stance if you choose to withhold Halloween:
• Plan. Sit down with your children and help them to understand the halachah. That though Halloween seems fun, it is not in line with Jewish values and its roots are not in sync with what we hold dear. Though paganism seems innocent and far from foreboding in our day and age, it is a belief system wholly at odds with belief in a transcendent God, creator and orchestrator of the universe.
Children need to know that belief is something critical and worth sacrificing for, even if it means giving up trick-or-treating. Truth be told, this lesson learned early on will pave the way for when being Jewish will mean far more to them than a bag full of candy.
• Fill your Jewish home with Jewish practice. I will not be the first one to remind you that we Jews have a fantastically fun holiday called Purim, when dressing up in costumes is based on holy traditions, and rather than going from house to house demanding treats, children are trained to go from house to house delivering treats!
• Find a different way to participate. Though they may not participate in dressing up on Halloween, your children can certainly take part by picking out the candy that they will dispense on Halloween night and by meeting and greeting trick or treaters the night of. This is considered laudable by our tradition in the spirit of establishing peaceful relations among our neighbors.
Finally, many surveys that examine Jewish continuity are based on synagogue membership, school attendance, camp participation and youth group associations. I would like to advocate for all of the above, but mostly for homes to abound with joyful Jewish life.
Do not abdicate your children’s Judaism whole-scale to others — it is primarily the responsibility of parents to set the tone and to guarantee that Judaism is transmitted through love, commitment and delight in the home. Halloween will not be missed if you make sure that its void is filled with authentic Jewish experiences.