This article originally appeared as an appendix to a Jewish evaluation of celebrating Thanksgiving. The complete text and footnotes can be found on Torah from Dixie. Reproduced with permission of the author.
To many, if not most, American Jewish parents, participating in Halloween revelries is harmless. Increasingly, however, rabbis and educators from across the denominational spectrum have questioned and challenged Jewish participation in Halloween activities.
Halloween in History
A recent newspaper article recounted:
“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.”
As was noted by Professor John Hennig, in his classical article on this topic, there is a clear historical relationship between the Celtic concepts of resurrection, Roman Catholic responses to it, and the modern American holiday of Halloween.
On the other hand, notwithstanding the origins of Halloween, one must recognize that the vast majority of the people in America who currently celebrate Halloween do not do so out of any sense of religious observance or feeling. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find a religion in the United States that recognize Halloween as a religious holiday. One recent writer, responding to Christian assertions that Halloween celebrations are a form of pagan worship, wrote:
“One of my fondest memories of kindergarten was the first Halloween celebrated at school. I marched proudly from room to room in our elementary school in my Wilma Flintstone [a character in a cartoon –MB] costume as a participant in the Halloween parade. The anticipation of the event was overwhelming, exciting and the fun was anything but sinister…. To say that participating in Halloween leads to devil worship is like saying taking Tylenol leads to crack addition. Believe me, when I was marching in my Wilma Flintstone costume, the last thing on my mind was drawing pentagrams or performing satanic rituals. The only thought I had was that next year I’d be Pebbles! [Wilma’s child — MB]… It is only a few fringe group fundamentalists who seriously believe Halloween is a holiday for worshiping the devil.”
This statement appears to be a truthful recounting of the modern American celebration of Halloween. The vast majority of people who celebrate Halloween have absolutely no religious motives at all–it is an excuse to collect candy or engage in mischievous behavior.
However, it is worth noting that there are still some people who celebrate Halloween religiously, and there are occasional court cases about employees who seek to take religious leave on Halloween day as a religious holiday.
Thus, the question about Halloween is whether Jewish law allows one to celebrate an event that has pagan origins, where the pagan origins are still known and celebrated by a very few, but not by the vast majority of people who engage in this activity.
Halloween & Halakhah
In order to answer this question, a certain background into the nature of the prohibition to imitate Gentile customs must be understood. 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 in 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.
Of course, independent of the halakhic obligation to avoid Gentile religious customs, Jewish law forbids a Jew from actually celebrating idolatrous religious events himself.
Based on this, in order to justify candy collection on Halloween, one would have to accept the truthfulness of any of the following assertions:
1) Halloween celebrations have a secular origin.
2) The conduct of the individuals “celebrating Halloween” can be rationally explained independent of Halloween.
3) The pagan origins of Halloween or the Catholic response to it are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations con be attributed to some secular source or reason.
4) The activities memorialized by Halloween are actually consistent with the Jewish tradition.
I believe that none of these statements are true.
Applying these halakhic rules to Halloween leads to the conclusion that participation in Halloween celebrations–which is what collecting candy is when one is wearing a costume–is prohibited. Halloween, since it has its origins in a pagan practice, and lacks any overt rational reason for its celebration other than its pagan origins or the Catholic response to it, is governed by the statement of Rabbi Isserles that such conduct is prohibited as its origins taint it. One should not send one’s children out to trick or treat on Halloween, or otherwise celebrate the holiday.
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.
The article above explores many of the most common objections to Halloween. While many rabbis would not state their opposition in as stark a way as Rabbi Broyde does, his opposition to Jews trick-or-treating is not uncommon.
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.