Sunday, October 30, 2011

Jews and Halloween

Inspired by Jared's post on zombie Halloween, I decided to do some investigation about Jews and Halloween. I grew up, like most American children, celebrating Halloween by going out in a costume and trick-or-treating. This was in the 1960s, before parents got involved in taking their children, and I remember on at least one occasion being chased by some older kids - we were also warned not to take apples, lest they have razor blades in them. I also remember how much fun it was, how much candy I collected (and then ate), and the one year that a neighbor created a haunted house, including the darkened room with spaghetti in a tray that we were told was intestines. I was never told anything about a Jewish attitude towards Halloween (but then, I didn't grow up in a very religiously Jewish home).

So what do religious Jews have to say about Halloween? Should Jewish children "trick-or-treat"? Should Jewish houses welcome children in to give them candy? I now live in a neighborhood in Ithaca that is very child-friendly, and lots of people trick-or-treat - parents even driving in with their children  from neighboring towns to go from house to house. If you don't want to take part, you have to make sure that there are no lights on at any doors, or just leave for the evening.

An article in My Jewish Learning, by Rabbi Michael Broyde (who is Orthodox), argues that Jewish children should not go out and collect candy on Halloween. He writes, quoting a newspaper article:
"According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Halloween originated with the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, a day on which the devil was invoked for the various divinations. 'The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day', Britannica says, 'and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins ... and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about.' In the early Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church instituted All Hallow's Eve on October 31 and All Saints Day on November 1 to counteract the occult festival. It did not work. All Hollow's Eve was simply co-opted into the pagan celebration of Samhain."
Since Halloween is rooted in a pagan holiday, he argues that Jews should not celebrate it. He concedes that the vast majority of Americans who celebrate it do not know of its pagan origins and do not celebrate it in order to observe Samhain, yet he still thinks it should not be celebrated by Jews. This is because of the injunction not to imitate the customs of the Gentiles (Leviticus 18:3: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws” ). Rabbi Broyde writes:
Tosafot [a medieval Talmud commentary] understands that two distinctly different types of customs are forbidden by the prohibition of imitating Gentile customs found in Leviticus 18:3. The first is idolatrous customs and the second is foolish customs found in the Gentile community, even if their origins are not idolatrous. Rabbenu Nissim (Ran) and Maharik disagree and rule that only customs that have a basis in idolatrous practices are prohibited. Apparently foolish--but secular--customs are permissible so long as they have a reasonable explanation (and are not immodest). Normative halakhah follows the ruling of the Ran and Maharik. As noted by Rama [Rabbi Moshe Isserles, c. 1525-1572]:
"Those practices done as a [Gentile] custom or law with no reason one suspects that it is an idolatrous practice or that there is a taint of idolatrous origins; however, those customs which are practiced for a reason, such as the physician who wears a special garment to identify him as a doctor, can be done; the same is true for any custom done out of honor or any other reason is permissible."
Rabbi Isserless is thus clearly prohibiting observing customs that have pagan origins, or even which might have pagan origins. His opinion, the most lenient found in normative halakhah, is the one we follow.
Rabbi Broyde believes, therefore, that Jewish children should not go out and collect candy on Halloween. What about giving out candy?
The question of whether one can give out candy to people who come to the door is a different one, as there are significant reasons based on darkhei shalom (the ways of peace), eva (the creation of unneeded hatred towards the Jewish people), and other secondary rationales that allow one to distribute candy to people who will be insulted or angry if no candy is given. This is even more so true when the community--Jewish and Gentile--are unaware of the halakhic problems associated with the conduct, and the common practice even within many Jewish communities is to "celebrate" the holiday. Thus, one may give candy to children who come to one's house to "trick or treat" if one feels that this is necessary.
Magical images from Sefer Raziel
For a more journalistic, and non-halakhic discussion of Jews and Halloween, see the article in the Baltimore Jewish Times - Jews and the Halloween Dilemma.

For an article on Jews and magic/the occult, see this article in Tablet Magazine from two years ago: Under a Spell.

An interesting article by a Reform rabbi on Halloween - the comments are also interesting - Is Halloween Good for the Jews?

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