Home > education, Judaism > Halloween and the Jews

Halloween and the Jews

Jewish Star Jack O'LanternWhen I was 11 years old, a grumpy Israeli teacher told me that good Jews don’t dress up for Halloween because it’s a Christian holiday when Christians persecuted Jews.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

First of all, Halloween began as a Pagan holiday, not Christian. The Celtic Pagan year was divided into two halves. The first half, roughly from spring to fall, was for the world of light, and the second half was for the world of darkness. Holidays marked the transitions from each half to the other.

In spring, Beltane celebrated the spiritual beginning of light-filled summer days and the life-giving force of the sun.

By contrast, Samhain (pronounced “sow-an”), the precursor to Halloween, fell on November 1 and represented summer’s end, winter nights, and, in general, darkness. As is typical of gateways and transitions (which are known technically as “liminal” times), Samhain was regarded with suspicion and even reverence. It was seen as a bridge between two opposite worlds: the human world of light and good on one hand, and the netherworld of darkness and evil on the other. Samhain was the time when the inhabitants of the latter might cross over to the former.

The custom of masks and costumes probably comes from the holiday’s general celebratory character. Some people may have dressed up specifically as ghouls to chase away the real evil powers, perhaps hoping that the denizens of the netherworld would try to distribute themselves evenly, and, seeing an abundance in one place, would go elsewhere. Or they may have thought that even the goblins were afraid of other goblins.

The Catholic Church highlighted the theme of the dead on the holiday when it adapted Samhain for its own purposes, merging it into its existing day for saints. All Saints Day, as it was called, was a time for recognizing the power the saints have over the still living. In some traditions, people paid special homage to the newly dead or offered prayers on behalf of the souls stuck in purgatory, hoping to pave a way to heaven rather than hell. Some people carried candles in turnips to represent the souls stuck in purgatory. In America, these would become our jack o’lanterns.

Since Catholic mass was held on the day, All Saints Day was also called All Saints Mass, the Middle English for which is Alholowmesse, and the Modern English for which is Hallowmas. (Christmas similarly gets its name from the mass held for Christ.)

Because the Catholic Church at the time still followed the Jewish tradition of reckoning days from sundown to sundown, Alholowmesse actually began on the evening before November 1, that is, on the evening of October 31, which was called Alholowevening, or more colloquially Alholowe’en. That gave us our Modern English name Halloween.

In addition to offering words of prayer for the dead, some Christians prepared physical food for their departed loves ones. Once food was potentially available, the poor wanted in on the action, and before long, the holiday became, in part, a day for begging (leading to Shakespeare’s image of “a beggar at Hallowmas.”) Some poor people asked for food outright. Others combined two Hallowmas traditions and agreed to offer a prayer for a provider’s dead relatives in return for a little sustenance.

But the Puritans who largely founded America despised both the Pagan and Catholic aspects of Halloween, and in this country Halloween was never regarded as a sectarian celebration. It wasn’t even on most American calendars until the mid-nineteenth century. When it finally did take root, it was a mixture of pranks, dress up, jack o’lanterns, and candy, none of which is un-Jewish in any way. So my grumpy Israel teacher was wrong.

He was equally wrong when he told me that Halloween was created to persecute Jews. There were no Jews living among the Celts when Samhain arose, and the Jews had already been exiled from England by the time the Christians turned Samhain into All Saints Day there.

But he was most severely wrong in his general approach. He failed to distinguish the history of the holiday from the holiday itself. If we abandoned everything that had a disagreeable history, we’d have to give up many of our favorite Jewish rituals, too.

Whatever their non-Jewish roots, American holidays such as Thanksgiving and Halloween are now symbols of pluralism, yearly signposts advertising America’s freedom and tolerance. These holidays are an opportunity for Americans, regardless of background, to come together and share an experience. And they can even be an enormous amount of fun.

Pluralism, tolerance, community, and fun are all Jewish ideals, and I, for one, am looking forward once again to greeting bizarrely dressed children as they come to my door and ask for treats.

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Categories: education, Judaism
  1. October 28, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    Dear Joel,

    As usual, you’ve touched upon the beauty and spirit of commingling secular and religious cultures. America has given so many wonderful gifts to the Jewish people. That we can dress up as monsters and join our fellow Americans in goofing off and laughing our way through the scariness that is sometimes far too real in life, this is testimony to the greatness of the life we, along with our nation’s founders, have created and are still creating for our American selves. While I’ll miss most of the trick-or-treating this year (since it falls on Shabbat Eve), you can bet I’ll be leaving some candy at my door, and perhaps even a scare of two of my own for any sweet but unsuspecting monster. Happy Halloween!

  2. October 28, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    I completely agree with what you say, and I really appreciate the (fascinating) history lesson on Halloween! But, I wonder what you (and others) think about the issue of Halloween in synagogue?

    This year, especially, since Halloween is a Friday night, a number of congregants really wanted to do a theme Shabbat, something that’s been done in this synagogue in the past. I refused – not so much because I don’t like Halloween, but because I don’t like Theme Shabbats! But, I have to admit that I’d probably be more willing to acknowledge Thanksgiving in synagogue than Halloween – as much as I love the day, it’s pagan roots (and general mood) seem out of sync with Shabbat, to me.

    Do you think there’s a place for Halloween in our synagogues?

    • Camille
      October 29, 2014 at 11:30 am

      I totally agree. And I like Rabbi Holtz’s comment as well. How much better is the Purim holiday when we GIVE gifts and treats rather than “extort” them (trick or treat)! And all the ghoulish stuff…blood, monsters, spiders, ghosts…no thanks.

  3. Rabbi David Holtz
    October 28, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Joel! While I am much less machmir about Halloween than I used to be, and I very much appreciate your history lesson, I still find the holiday distasteful. Mostly, I don’t like the notion of “trick or treat” – “give me a treat or I’ll play a trick” – “give me some candy or I’ll egg your house” which I think of as a junior form of extortion. I much prefer Purim, when we go door to door giving gifts, and when we can dress up as the best we can imagine- the heros and heroines -rather than the worst -the monsters.
    All the best,
    David

    • October 31, 2013 at 2:50 pm

      Totally agree! :) I grew up in France and never celebrated Halloween until I got in the US, The first year after my son was born my husband convinced me to give it a try, so I did. When a neighbor opened his door with an ax planted in the middle of his forehead, with blood and professional make-up I very much indeed found that to be very distasteful, and terrifying for young children! We, now, have a family tradition on the 31st, Movie Night! We have replaced creepiness with happiness, and we can have candy too! :)

  4. October 28, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    Rabbi Rosenberg asks a great question about Halloween in the synagogue.

    I actually see two questions.

    The first is whether Religious Schools ought to support/allow Halloween celebrations, and I think the answer is absolutely yes. The kids will all be talking about their costumes and getting excited about Halloween. Bringing that energy into the Hebrew school is a great way to help the kids relate more positively to Religious school and to Judaism in general. Trying to squelch the excitement, in addition to probably not working, will just send the message that Judaism is antithetical to fun.

    The second question, particularly relevant this year, is whether Halloween can/should be combined with Shabbat. And here I don’t see anything wrong with it principle, but equally I don’t see any particular reason to do it. Unlike Thanksgiving, which meshes beautifully with some of the themes of Shabbat, Halloween doesn’t have anything important to teach. On the other hand, a youth-group event combining (non-Halloween themed) Shabbat with a Halloween party before or afterward sounds like a good idea to me.

    What do others think? Is anyone doing a Shabbat service with the theme of Halloween?

    • October 27, 2014 at 11:04 pm

      Yup. The congregation I serve is having a “Yaakov Lantern Service” on Friday, October 31. We are encouraging kids to come in their costumes to a very early (5PM), very brief service. We recognize that most of the kids in our congregation will be trick-or-treating that night, no matter what we tell them to do. Why not use it as an opportunity to have a Jewish experience on a night when they will be part of a neighborhood community experience? We will give them glow-sticks to help them stay safe while they wander the streets and we will give them a lesson on the Jewish value of gratitude and remind them to say, “Thank you,” for the treats they receive.

  5. October 28, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    A quick update: Dr. Susan Einbinder writes with the information that: “On the historical specifics, I can only add that in all my studies of medieval Jewish pogroms, and I’ve studied a lot of them, I have never seen a reference to Jews killed on Halloween. I have no idea where this myth started, either.”

  6. rabbi brian zimmerman
    October 28, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    Joel,

    Having spent my rabbinic career defending Halloween, I loved every word in your article. It is a great time to delve into jewish superstitions and ghost stories. Many have suggested Purim as a better time, but of course the mood and themes of Purim do not lend themsleves to an exploration of this dark side of Jeiwsh custom. I am that rabbi, tht Jason is referring to and I feel sorry for the mess I left him. I do not create “theme” shabbats but the friday before halloween was always jewish Ghost story shabbat. On the one year that they were on the same date, we had a 10 PM service, everyone dressed up, and we led a regualr serivce but told ghost stories at the sermon slot and had a spooky Oneg Shabbat.

    The best part was when a congregant dressed as a nun unknowingly entered the sanctuary as we were turning during L’cha Dodi. This was perhpas the funniest moment in my whole pulpit rabbinate.

    In any case, I have spent many years thinking about how to use this time of year to explore the darker side of jewish customs and our past as teaching opportunties. As you can imagine, it is not a “growth” area for new rituals. Thanks for your magnificent article.

    Shabbat Shalom and Happy Halloween,

    Brian Zimmerman

  7. October 29, 2008 at 12:54 am

    At my secular school, we use Halloween as an opportunity to dress up, and we bake cookies to give to the community. The school specifically asks that the businesses we visit do not give candy to our students. So it becomes a matter of giving, not greedy grabbing. If we have cookies left over to much afterward, that’s a treat, but not the reason we started the process.

  8. Joshua
    October 29, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    this makes getting my kids to settle on a halloween costume look like a piece of cake:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2203117/

    ps thanks for this joel, great post.

  9. October 30, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    While you have the symbolism down pretty well, I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion. “Pluralism, tolerance, community, and fun are all Jewish ideals…”

    Remembering history is also a Jewish ideal. In this case, codified by halakhah in the laws of derekh emori ([following the] ways of [e.g.] the Emorite). The origins of a practice do matter to halakhah, regardless of how they since shifted in significance. In this case where not ruling leniently will give offense, some Orthodox decisors permit, and some prohibit.

    But is pluralism a Jewish ideal? It depends how you intended to distinguish it from the next item on your list, tolerance. If pluralism means that I’m not claiming to be any more right than a Mormon (to pick a variant on the Christian theme that is pretty moral but very different than our concept of monotheism), the concept isn’t drawing from Jewish tradition.

    (There is also an issue this year of giving out candy on Shabbos. Transfering ownership, is traditionally prohibited on Shabbos, given its closeness to conducting business. The Kesav Sofer (Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyomin Sofer, Hungary 1815-1875) in Orach Chaim responsum #59, permits giving gifts to a non-Jew as long as the transfer of ownership is done by the non-Jew. For example, if you have the child take the candy out of the bowl, rather than you giving it to him.)

    -micha

  10. Dave
    October 15, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Jews aren’t supposed to celebrate death. Death isn’t a joyous occasion.

  11. October 28, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    I’m doing a multi-part unit with the 8th/9th graders that I teach on “Observing American Holidays as a Jew” – I can’t wait to share this as one perspective with them. I hadn’t thought of setting them up to debate Halloween in Religious School and Halloween on Shabbat but this discussion forum sparked a great idea. It will be interesting to see what they come up with. The unit is in December & January, but I hope to cover Thanksgiving, Halloween, Fourth of July, Xmas, & MLK Day.

  12. l barash
    October 27, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Question:

    Do Jews celebrate Halloween? I know its origins aren’t very “Jewish,” but I’m worried that my kids will feel left out if they can’t go trick-or-treating in the neighborhood.

    Answer:

    Let me tell you about a wonderful Jewish holiday: once a year, our children dress up as sages, princesses, heroes and clowns. They drop by the homes of our community, visit the infirm and the aged, spreading joy and laughter. They bring gifts of food and drink and collect tzedakah (charity) for the needy.

    You guessed it–it’s called Purim, when it’s customary to send mishloach manot–gifts of food–to one’s friends and even more gifts to those in hard times.

    Flip it over (October instead of March, demanding instead of giving, scaring instead of rejoicing, demons instead of sages, etc.) and you have Halloween. There you have it: a choice of one of two messages you can give to your children. I call that a choice, because one of the beautiful things about kids is that, unlike adults, they don’t do too well receiving two conflicting messages at once.

    I know how hard it is to be different, but as Jews, we have been doing just that for most of our 3,800 years. Since Abraham and Sarah broke away from the Sumerian cult of gods and demons, we have lived amongst other peoples while being very different from them. And we dramatically changed the world by being that way.

    That’s a proud and nurturing role for any child: To be a leader and not a follower, to be a model of what should be rather than of what is.

    Make your kids feel that they are the vanguard. They belong to a people who have been entrusted with the mission to be a light to the nations–not an ominous light inside a pumpkin, but a light that stands out and above and shows everyone where to go. Forget about Halloween and wait for Purim to turn the neighborhood upside down!

  13. Laurence Groffman
    October 28, 2014 at 8:17 am

    Great article, Joel–thank you. Following up on the idea that, “If we abandoned everything that had a disagreeable history, we’d have to give up many of our favorite Jewish rituals, too,” I was wondering if you would like to share your “favorite” distasteful histories to Jewish customs. Many thanks.

  14. October 28, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Great post. I too was under the misunderstanding that Halloween (like Easter or Valentine’s Day) was a time when pogroms were to have happened. Glad to know our family can walk about our neighborhood in our Doctor Who regalia guilt-free!

  15. October 28, 2014 at 11:30 am

    Reblogged this on Raviva.

  16. October 28, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Thanks for your excellent research and thoughts. Your article was the basis of a great discussion today, at the Beth Am Men’s breakfast (Los Altos Hills, CA) led by Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit.

  17. Wendy Zohar
    October 29, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Thank you, Joel, for illuminating what for me has lately been a very dark, negative holiday. That is, ever since my own kids left the coop and now make halloween with their own kids. Before that, in the early, good ol’ days, I used to enjoy this crazy kids’ holiday.

    But in my mind still, purim was our dress up time, celebrating bravery and the saving of the Jews, and this one was pagan, serving no recognizable, noble aim. It seems to bring out many unwanted characteristics in youth, such as greediness, going overboard for sweets and maxing out, out of control. I’ve seen kids in groups throwing eggs at houses, or “papering” houses and trees of folks the kids don’t like, bullying at the front door for certain kinds of candy and being ungrateful if a “lesser” treat is on offer. What does that teach youngsters? I’ve read about mean and pathologic pranks by home baddies such as inserting dangerous things like razor blades into apples, and I recall in Cleveland a tragic occurrence of a sicko who entered the University Hospitals wearing a white Janis mask on halloween, with hidden weapons under his costume, and he started shooting down the hallway, killing staff. No one had apprehended or stopped him because he looked normal for halloween. I wonder how many Jokers there will be on the dark roads, hoping to express their anti social whims, and get away with it? If I were a parent of young children I would not let them out on their own to trick or treat in the neighborhood anymore.

    Shedding light is always good, but this was particularly good to read, as a Jew who’s fascinated by cultural history. I still think it’s not our holiday (I’m glad to say), in contrast to that American as Apple Pie holiday of Thanksgiving. I’m glad it’s coming up soon.

  1. October 30, 2011 at 8:01 am

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