For some, it’s an excuse to have those miniature chocolate bars lying around the house. For others, it’s a reason to adorn their home with carved pumpkins and phony spider webs, or to throw a party with kitschy spooky music and guests donning clever costumes.
And for most American children — even Jewish children — Halloween is a much-anticipated autumn highlight, affording them the opportunity to dress up, roam neighborhood streets with their friends and collect treats which they then hoard and guard in the days that follow like precious gems.
Despite Halloween’s likely pagan and religious roots, it continues to be embraced by Jews as simply an evening to have some fun.
But not everyone agrees that the holiday should be celebrated, at least not full-throttle.
Halloween is believed to have begun with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, “when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts,” according to History.com. “In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween.”
“The basis of the holiday is of course religious,” noted Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation. “But it has gone so far away from that, my guess is that almost anybody on the street that you asked would say, ‘What are you talking about?’”
So, is it inappropriate for a Jewish child to trick-or-treat?
“No,” the Reform rabbi chuckled. “But from a dental point of view, yes.”
Neither should members of a Jewish household feel they necessarily must abstain from passing out candy to the children in their neighborhood, according to Jacob.
“It’s become a folk holiday,” he explained. “It has nothing to do with the origin at all, and it’s really a children’s holiday, and it’s a lovely children’s holiday.”
Jonathan Perlman, spiritual leader of New Light Congregation, which identifies with the Conservative movement, also views Halloween as “a fun American holiday for children,” but does think that Jews should not participate in celebrating the macabre aspects of the holiday.
“I have no objection to giving out candy, or having children getting dressed up and getting candy from the neighbors,” Perlman said. “But I draw the line at decorating your home and holding parties for Halloween because I think we shouldn’t take it all that seriously because of what it represents — ghoulishness and death.”
In Jewish culture, Perlman said, there is no “day to celebrate death, which is essentially what Halloween is. In Judaism, there is no place for that. We have our own expressions we should be proud of.”
It’s “ironic,” Perlman continued, that Sukkot generally falls within close proximity to Halloween.
“Sukkot is a celebration of life and gratitude to God,” he observed. “I’d rather see our community celebrate Sukkot and have parties to celebrate Sukkot and life rather than celebrate something ghoulish and celebrate the hereafter.”
Although he permitted his own daughters to trick-or-treat, they never wore costumes associated with death, but rather generally went the princess route, he noted.
While Rabbi Mendy Rosenblum, spiritual leader of Chabad of the South Hills, “is neighborly in many ways” to his predominately non-Jewish neighbors in Mt. Lebanon, he and his family generally try to avoid Halloween “by not being home, or keeping the lights off,” he said.
When there is the occasional knock at the door, “we explain very respectfully that it is not part of our tradition,” he said.
Like Perlman, Rosenblum pointed to a Jewish holiday as being a more appropriate day for children to embrace. Purim, he noted, celebrates “light, joy and happiness,” rather than the darkness of Halloween.
“Purim originates from our sources and is more understandable and relatable to children,” Rosenblum said.
While he acknowledged that Halloween “no longer is religious in nature,” it did have its roots in paganism, “and the Torah says to stay away from those things.”
“When we celebrate anything,” Rosenblum continued, “we look for some sort of inspiration. With the skeletons and the ghosts and the goblins, what’s the message? I don’t get it.
“This is one that we sit out, just for these reasons,” he said. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at