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Home > Holidays > Is Halloween kosher?

Is Halloween kosher?
Holiday poses conflict for American Jews

Zipple Staff Writer
October 27, 2000

CHICAGO—Halloween is here again, and Jews are faced with the eternal balance of sacred vs. secular observance in America. What is the meaning of Halloween, and should Jews participate?

If asked about Halloween, most Americans will refer to some sort of pagan or druid ritualistic observance, full of ghosts and witches stirring brews and casting spells. Frightening or not, this is actually only part of the basis for what has become a very popular American holiday.

Halloween has a colorful history. October 31 is "Samhain," a Western European holiday which is the day of the third and final harvest marked as a day to remember the dead. This holiday is the most coveted observance by the Wiccan and other pagan religions. The image of a Witch stirring a boiling cauldron stems from the Celtic imagery representing the belief that all souls who die return to the Cone Goddess's "cauldron of life."

Some say that as a part of Samhain, sacrifices were offered by the living to placate the dead and to prevent any tricks they might be disposed to play. People would try to appease the powers of nature with fire rituals, mock funerals, and masquerades where people would dress as animals.

The Catholic Church moved the observance of "All Saints Day" from May to November 1 in the eighth century, perhaps to coincide with a Roman harvest festival or to bring a sacred end to the scary fortnight. For whatever reason, Catholic decree or social influence, this "All-Hallowed's Eve," or eventually "Halloween," a day for those departed who were not quite saintly, grew in popularity.

Eventually, the addition of dressing in costumes, similar to the practice of dressing as animals in observance of Samhain, came into fashion. It is said that many believed that, in the night when ghosts and goblins and ghouls walked the earth, "good souls" were at risk. To "trick" these horrid beings from recognizing them, people started to dress up and celebrate with them.

By the turn of the century, Halloween became a night of widespread and destructive vandalism. Turning over cemetery headstones, tipping outhouses, soaping windows, switching store signs, throwing eggs and tomatoes were commonplace.

So where does that leave Jewish kids growing up in North America? Halloween isn't as obvious as Christmas; it's not Christoween, after all.

Avrom Kushner of Winnepeg, Canada, gleefully recalls his own childhood antics. "When we were kids, we would go a few miles out of town on Halloween. We would find outhouses and move them five or ten feet backward. We didn't care who was Jewish or who wasn't when we were doing it. Everyone got hit the same without prejudice."

It's not so simple for all Jews, of course. In the 1920's, the activities of the Klu Klux Klan, including acts of disguised terrorism at night and murders, had reached the most active period. Jews and other minorities became special targets of these activities on Halloween night, when hate crimes could be more easily hidden.

Today, in America, like most holidays, Halloween has lost much of its original meaning and historical roots. It has become a hugely commercial venture-its history all but forgotten. For Jewish Americans, Halloween observances seem to reflect the degree of an individual's secular affiliation.

What does halacha, or Jewish law, have to say on the matter? Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, rabbi of the Young Israel of Atlanta, an Orthodox Congregation, presents a halachic analysis of celebrating Halloween and Thanksgiving—very different from each other in relation to halacha—and explains that the halachic issues revolve around Halloween's pagan origins, even if modern day observance no longer reflects those origins. Jewish law generally forbids any practices related to or stemming from beliefs or rituals of other religions, pagan included.

"Applying…halachic 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," writes Broyde, who is also an associate professor of law at Emory University. "Halloween, since it has its origins in a pagan practice, and lacks any overt rationale reason for its celebration other than its pagan origins or the Catholic response to it, is governed by the statement of Rabbi [Moshe] Isserless [a 16th century Halachic authority] that such conduct is prohibited as its origins taint it."

Broyde does add, however, that giving out candy is a different matter, and halachically permissible since it helps maintain good relations between Jews and non-Jews.

Most Orthodox Jews simply pay no attention to Halloween. It's not a Jewish holiday, therefore it's not celebrated; October 31 is just another day on the calendar and passes without notice.

"Halloween? Why should a Jew even consider Halloween? It's not for Jews," remarks Isaac Kushner of Manitoba.

In Springfield, Mass, the Jewish Community Center's approach typifies that of most Jewish organizations. Nancy Abramson, the center's assistant director of senior services, remarks simply, "Of course we have no program activities for Halloween. There's nothing Jewish about it. So what that it's become an American celebration? It's like Valentine's Day. We do nothing."

Rabbi David Greenspoon of Adat Shalom Synagogue, a Conservative Congregation in suburban Pittsburgh, takes a different approach.

"Perhaps Jewish Americans nowadays 'treat' Halloween as they do Turkey Day. No one would seriously suggest that only those in the Mayflower Registry should celebrate that holiday. Just as Thanksgiving allows us to build bonds as Americans despite ethnic identity, Halloween allows kids across the cultural divide to unite in common purpose: How much candy can you get!" Greenspoon says.

"Truth be told," the rabbi adds, "even the Solomon Schechter Day School in Jacksonville used to distribute 'Trick or Treat for Unicef' boxes back when I was a kid. When you add this tzedakah component to the mix, one could go so far as to suggest that the holiday could even assume a quasi-Jewish value."

It seems this attitude is gaining popularity. "We live in a Jewish Community, and have a strong Jewish identity," says Malka Posnick of Boston. "But come Halloween and Valentine's Day, well, we are Americans. At least until the candy comes home, and we separate out the non-kosher ones for our non-Jewish friends."

As America becomes more and more diversified, and as cultures and social values blend and mix together, families will encounter more and more potentially conflicting experiences. For Jews, who aim to preserve a faith, culture, and social values, the eternal questions surrounding Halloween—when to compromise and when to stand firm—are far more significant than mere question of "Trick or treat?"

©, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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