Ask the Rabbis: Should Jewish children celebrate Halloween?
Sephardic, Modern Orthodox
Since the pagan elements of trick-or-treating have effectively been “neutralized,” is it wrong to allow our children to participate? The Torah’s answer is “yes.”
Through its prohibition of “foreign” customs, the Torah draws attention to its own uniqueness. Primitive people found themselves in an overwhelming, mysterious and threatening environment in the face of which they felt powerless and vulnerable. They created religious rituals and superstitions as a way of exerting magical influence over the forces of nature that they could not control physically. Man made religions thus reflected the fears, anxieties, hopes and fantasies of their adherents.
The Torah is designed to challenge and educate human beings at the highest level of which they are capable—morally, intellectually and emotionally. Unlike simplistic folk religions, Judaism is a comprehensive system of philosophy and commandments that must be diligently studied and observed to be appreciated. In the framework of Judaism, a human being’s most sublime faculty—his or her intellect—is not only engaged in religious practice, it is the epicenter of religious experience. This is a far cry from the arena of primitive rituals in which human weaknesses and emotional insecurities beget piety.
In order to emphasize these crucial distinctions, the Torah prohibits us from adopting customs that have roots in idolatrous religions. Rather than sending Jewish children out to trick-or-treat, we should use Halloween as an opportunity to teach them about the features of their heritage that make it truly unique.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof,
Magen David Sephardic Congregation,
This is not so much a halachic question; it is a public policy question. Do we want to prohibit or permit this activity?
Historically, Orthodoxy has been suspicious of letting its youth celebrate American holidays for fear that this would lead to assimilation or adoption of “practices of Gentiles.” When I was growing up, Orthodox rabbis were critical of those who celebrated Thanksgiving, but as Orthodoxy has acculturated, such attitudes have relaxed.
One could argue for prohibition of Halloween because it is associated with witches and ghosts. Judaism has implacably opposed witchcraft or attempted communication with the dead since biblical times. Monotheism is the antithesis of magic. “There is none beside Him” (Deuteronomy 4.35), and no abracadabra tricks can manipulate God to get unnatural results.
That having been said, Halloween is almost entirely a product of American consumer culture, and there’s more mockery than true belief to be found in the ever-popular costumes of witches and monsters.
My wife and I discouraged our children from trick-or-treating—partly out of fear of religious syncretism, but mostly because we did not want them to internalize American consumerist psychology, and because eating a lot of candy is unhealthy. But I confess, trick-or-treating is popular in our neighborhood. In order to be good neighbors, we leave boxes of fruits, treats and candy goodies in front of the house with a sign inviting kids to help themselves to one item out of each box. We don’t check if any of the kids are Jewish. Conclusion: If a Jewish child wants to go trick-or-treating for social reasons, it’s not a big deal.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg
President, Jewish Life Network/ Steinhardt Foundation
New York, New York
As Halloween is celebrated nowadays, it is mostly about trick-or-treating, dressing up, having fun and getting free candy, with few or no religious overtones. That said, there are issues about celebrating it that are Jewishly problematic and are worthy of consideration by thoughtful Jewish parents.
There is a halachic prohibition against a belief in sorcerers and magic. Some of this begins with the biblical tale of Saul, who consulted a fortune teller instead of God about his future. His misjudgment resulted in Saul losing both his throne and his mind.
As long as parents discuss with their children the difference between believing in sorcery and reality, I see no significant objection here. Most of my objections are related to the conflicts that can arise between celebrating Halloween and doing the right thing, Jewishly. For example, for the family that keeps kashrut, there is surely the issue of whether some of the candy and food that their kids will “bag” will meet the Jewish edible standards. But this could be addressed by carefully “sifting” through the candy, and donating all unacceptable items to a food bank for other children who can partake without religious restrictions.
A more serious conflict arises when Halloween coincides with Shabbat, Jewish holidays or Hebrew school attendance. What kind of message is a parent giving to his or her child when he or she is told that to going out trick-or-treating takes precedence over Jewish study or celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish holidays?
Parents may also wish to consider the values suggested by Halloween, such as demanding sweets from strangers. The original saying is in actuality a threat: “If you don’t give me a treat, I’ll give you a trick.”
Can Jewish kids live without these ghosts, goblins and candy? I certainly think so. Will it do irreparable damage to their Jewish identities if they participate? Probably not. But as parents, we should think about the values, priorities and commitments we want our children to develop.
Rabbi Ron Isaacs,
Bridgewater, New Jersey
Though I write as a Reform rabbi, I offer what can be called (in the phraseology of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise) an American Jewish response.
To be completely true to our tradition, the answer is, “No. Jewish children should not go trick-or-treating on Halloween.” Inasmuch as this is a Christian/pagan holiday—no matter how secularized it has become—it is inappropriate for Jews to observe it in any manner.
However, the matter is more complicated. Are there moments when Jews have taken an essentially foreign idea and co-opted it and changed into an authentic Jewish tradition? Of course! And the most obvious example is the Passover seder. So many of our traditions were lifted directly from Roman influences. In acknowledging those antecedents, would anyone suggest that our practices are somehow inauthentic? Of course not!
In this same light, there are few who would connect the carefree, costume-wearing, candy-gorging escapades of our children on October 31 with the religious overtones that the holiday once carried. As such, the holiday has evolved into a secular celebration. Therefore, it would seem to be as innocent an activity as celebrating New Year’s Eve or Thanksgiving (both of which once had Christian connotations).
Even in accepting Halloween, do I want our Jewish children to associate the best time of the year (dressing in costumes and getting as much candy as one can carry) with a holiday with nominal pagan andor Christian overtones? Of course not! Instead wouldn’t it be wonderful if they thought of the Jewish holiday where children dress in costumes, eat lots of goodies and act in all types of silly and fun ways? (Purim!) But that, I guess, is for another discussion.
Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff
The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah, Overland Park, Kansas
We could boycott All Hallow’s Eve for its ghoulish associations—and, in medieval Christendom, Jews received more trick than treat. We might avoid this holiday of “pagan” origin, lest we “do as the other nations.” Ghosts of Halloweens past may still haunt us.
Or Halloween could be just a harmless diversion. We might accompany our Power Rangers and Doras around the neighborhood to say that “America is different,” that we feel safe(r) on these shores. Since it usually falls in Mar-Cheshvan, the only holiday-less Hebrew month, we might even make it our own.
Mordecai Kaplan taught that we who “live in two civilizations” must answer as Jews and Westerners both. We live in mostly mixed communities where Halloween is an accepted norm. Our kids have friends, Jewish and non, who will invite them trick-or-treating. Though we reserve the right to withhold children’s immediate gratification, should we put our foot down here?
It’s a tightrope act: Avoiding Halloween may feel like the Jewish thing to do, yet a simmering feeling of “I missed the funnest thing ever” can subtly undermine future Jewish identity. So rather than decree or surrender, we should decide with our kids and engage them in discussion of the values at hand. Secular concerns at Halloween have a Jewish angle, too—moderation, safety, neighborliness, ethics of food—making it a “teachable moment.” We can balance values like kavod (respect), tzedakah, kashrut, briyut (health) and oneg (enjoyment). Options abound: Serve treats, but not go door-to-door? Avoid skeleton costumes? Collect candy, then donate it? Between abandon and avoidance lie many possibilities. Let’s choose wisely, together.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb,
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, Maryland
In the American melting pot of shared cultures, trick-or-treating is as religious as a bagel. Dressing in costume for occasions other than Purim is Jewishly acceptable. It makes sense that Jewish schools don’t celebrate Halloween, but it’s normal for Jewish students to want to take part in it.
Halloween is a time to teach piku’ah nefesh—protecting or saving a life. A few examples: When trick-or-treating, children should be accompanied by an adult. Teens are safer at a Halloween party than going out alone. Products that are unsealed shouldn’t be eaten. Large amounts of candy can be dangerous to our health.
When Halloween falls on a Friday, hold a party on motza’ei Shabbat. Invite your child’s Jewish and non-Jewish friends and serve delicious, kid-friendly food. More harm is done to Jewish continuity by forbidding youth from observing holidays like Halloween than by supporting the celebration in safe and healthy ways.
Rabbi Pamela Frydman
President, OHALAH: Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal
This is a tough one. Jewish children should learn about their own traditions rather than always celebrating everyone else’s. Still, it is far better for a Jewish child to go trick-or-treating than to celebrate an iota of Christmas and Easter.
Why? Because Halloween is probably a whole lot closer to Jewish tradition than Christmas or Easter. After all, Jewish tradition also held annual rituals of warding off evil spirits, or winds, with the approach of major seasonal changes. As the Midrash teaches, “What is the ritual of the barley offering? One waves the barley shoots in its season, first inward and outward to ward off harsh winds that are harmful to the crops, then upward and downward to ward off harsh rains that are harmful to the crops. Others say, first inward and outward to the One to whom belongs all of the universe, then upward and downward to the One to whom belongs both the Upper Realms and Lower Realms.” Even the shofar that we blow so glibly these days on Rosh Hashanah was to our ancestors an implement to ward off evil forces. So if you must take your kids trick-or-treating, employ it as an opportunity to introduce them to the richness of their own tradition.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cuba, New Mexico
For secular Jews and the Humanistic Jews among them, the question isn’t, “to trick or not to trick,” but what kind of treats to hand out, and how to regulate all that sugar intake. We’re also concerned about which costumes are acceptable and which are not, generally preferring a benign Bob the Builder over a blood-curdling goblin. In short, we welcome Halloween as part of our shared American culture.
The holiday’s pagan origins were co-opted by the Christian Church, when it re-cast an earlier Celtic festival, Samhain, into All-Hallows, meaning All-Saints’ Day, which eventually became Halloween. You can rename holidays as much as you like, but tell-tale signs of earlier, compelling rituals persevere.
As Jews, we’re experts at this effort to submerge pagan Canaanite rituals into grander stories of the Exodus saga, but farmers’ earlier rituals that marked critical seasonal changes continue to show up at our seder. The menorahs that we light at Hanukkah are descendants of bonfires lit at the winter solstice.
Halloween’s attraction, I think, is to be found in its pagan origins. Despite all our vaunted modern and rational ideas, we have permission, even if briefly, to think about dead spirits, demonic forces and the uncertainty of winter closing in on us. Thankfully, those very goblins subverted the Church’s efforts to turn it into a holiday for saints, and it remains accessible for all of us to enjoy.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, New York, New York