Halloween is such a strange time for many Jews. Rabbis, educators, and day school directors remind their constituencies constantly about how un-Jewish it is, how pagan and Christian it is, how we shouldn’t participate. Aside from everything else, they say, we’ve got an equivalent celebration of our own! On Purim, Jewish kids get to dress up in silly costumes and receive goodies from friends and neighbors in the form of mishloach manot!
Meanwhile, these pronouncements are ignored by thousands of Jewish children who enjoy Halloween! What a great holiday! Candy, parties, candy, costumes, and candy! And no one is really aware of the origins, pagan or Christian, of the celebration–unless they’ve heard about it from their rabbi!
Before I go down this path any further I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that my kids do not do Halloween. I haven’t ever forbidden them from trick-or-treating, but in the environment in which we live it’s a barely noticed ritual. That having been said, I want to re-examine the question of Jews and Halloween.
About 20 years ago, a friend and teacher of mine, Rabbi Everett Gendler, told me that in his shul they make “Ya’akov lanterns.” At the time I chuckled and filed the tidbit away without further thought, but the time has come to dust it off and think it through. We Jews have a long history of borrowing customs and rituals from the culture in which we live. Most of our Hanukkah traditions and rituals were borrowed, our end-of-winter Purim revelry bears a close resemblance to similar festivities in other cultures, and there is a long list of symbols at the Passover seder table that echo ancient pagan rites of spring.
The Jewish quality of these rituals, objects, and customs comes not in their uniquely Jewish origins, but in how we have adapted them to function as vehicles for uniquely Jewish meaning. So, for example, we borrowed a child’s spinning top from our Christian neighbors in medieval Germany. On the four sides of the top were written abbreviations for instructions on playing the game: nicht – nothing, ganz – everything, halb – half, and stell – put. On our tops we wrote the letters in Hebrew: nun, gimmel, hay, shin. But they still provided a digest of the rules of the game. Then we transformed the whole thing into a vehicle of Jewish meaning – nes gadol haya sham – a great miracle happened there.