Making Halloween Jewish

Transforming the October holiday into a Jewish celebration.

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Can we perform a similar transformation on Halloween? It is, after all, a well loved holiday for many people, and would thus be a highly attractive means of communicating some Jewish message. Let's see what happens when we try.

Making Halloween Jewish

First of all, we need a date for the celebration. The eve of All Saints' Day is clearly not useful as a carrier of Jewish meaning. If we look at the Hebrew date equivalent of October 31 over a 20 year period (1989-2008) we find that, although it can fall as early as 28 Tishrei or as late as 26 Cheshvan, the average date is 11 Cheshvan.

Given the traditional imagery of the full harvest moon at Halloween, the full moon of Cheshvan seems a likely choice. But since, for American Jews, holidays that fall on Sunday allow for more relaxed celebration (since we can party late on Saturday night without concerns of work or school Sunday morning), I suggest the motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) closest to the full moon (i.e., the 15th) of Cheshvan.

Now for the basic meaning-framework. The season of Halloween is roughly mid-way between the early fall harvest time marked by Sukkot and the dead of winter darkness kept at bay by the Hanukkah lights. The winter darkness is beginning to be apparent, as is the chill in the air. This is truly the season of transition to winter. I suggest, therefore, that the primary meaning of this new Jewish observance be the transition from a warm, light, outdoor world to a colder, darker world in which we seek indoor shelter.

The home, and the warmth and protection it provides, are central themes. We celebrate the physical haven of our homes, and the spiritual haven of long winter nights spent indoors with family or friends. This leads to a central symbol and a central mitzvah. The symbol is the Ya'akov lantern, the hollowed-out and carved pumpkin (carved, perhaps with Jewish symbols--Star of David eyes?) with a candle (kindled from the Havdalah candle) burning inside.

The pumpkin symbolizes the Jewish home--its walls are filled with nourishment, but there is ample room inside to create family experiences. It is lit with a warm glow which not only provides warmth and light for the inhabitants, but shines out as a beacon of invitation to those outside, as if to say, "Kol dichfin yaytay v'yaychol --all who are hungry, let them come and eat." Of course, like its cousin the Jack o' Lantern (and, coincidentally, like the Hanukah candles), the Ya'akov lantern must be placed in a window, since an invitation is only genuine if others can see it.

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Rabbi David Nelson

Rabbi David Nelson's rabbinic experience includes five years in a small congregation, fifteen years at CLAL, a think-tank and center for leadership education, five years in a community center, and three years as the primary writer and teacher for the Reform Movement's Israel organization. He is now the campus rabbi and faculty member in Religion at Bard College in upstate New York.