Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

Acute Angles: Hallowe’en – More Un-Jewish Than Xmas!

Dear Rabbi.  My friend passed onto me that you told her Hallowe’en was even more un-Jewish than Xmas.  I can’t see how you can say that as Xmas marks the birth of a new religion that has persecuted Jews and Judaism for two millennia whereas Hallowe’en is just a bit of exotic, harmless fun.  Isn’t it?  Yours, B.R.

Dear B. R.

Let me make it clear:  I did not say that Hallowe’en had wrought more harm on the Jewish nation and Judaism than the symbolism of Xmas, and for that matter Easter, and all that these landmark Christian festivals stand for.  I said Hallowe’en is more un-Jewish than Xmas. And I stand by that remark and will attempt to explain why.

The festival has its origins in the pagan Celtic festival Samhain celebrated by Druid priests to welcome in “the dark half of the year” Celebrants believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit (not spiritual) world break down at this time of the year, allowing interaction between humans and ghosts of the dead. Incantations to the waning sun (represented by a wheel sparking fire) were uttered. Folk used to dress up as monsters to ward off ghosts.  Much later, the catholic popes attempted to morph it into “All Hallows Eve” to honour their saints; however they could not divest it of its pagan origins.  The prominence of carved apples and pumpkins derive from divination and spiritualistic rites, strictly prohibited by the Torah (Deut 18:9-12).  Even if most celebrants nowadays do not go quite this far, the prominence of ghoulish, face-painted skeletons and other fiendish and monstrous apparitions in at least two neighbouring houses on my street (and no, I don’t go out of my way to look for them!) testifies that the pagan origins of the festival continue to leave their mark.

So, there we have it: a pagan festival taken over by the catholic church.  Ritualistically, how more un-Jewish can it be?

Nevertheless, some will try to argue that these nether-world symbols are today treated as a joke and just make for harmless fun.  Even if they were correct – which I repudiate – there is another concern just as serious, if not more so.

It is uncannily coincidental that around this time of the year we invariably read in the Torah of the destruction of Sodom (Gen.19:24-25).  We popularly associate Sodom with sexual perversions.  Yet our Sages pinpoint the fundamental vice of the Sodomites as one of self-centred ultra-materialism, refusal to give to others, taking instead, and abusing strangers.

Now let us examine the main “social” (I use the word advisedly) custom of Hallowe’en in countries like America and Australia today. It is of course “trick-or-treat”.  What does this mean?

For the uninitiated: children (in macabre costume of course) are encouraged to knock on the front doors of strangers threatening a trick if not given a treat.  This apparently can take the form of a ghoulish skull covered in chocolate.  Yet something more worrisome is happening here.  The kids are demanding something. And if the hapless householder happens to be deficient in the commodity being demanded, the kiddiewinks are “empowered” by custom to enter and perform a mischief – a trick – on the property of the homeowner.

What kind of character-training is this exactly?

Of course, we Jews are blessed to celebrate annually a pleasant mirror-image of this day – superficially similar but actually the polar opposite – called Purim. On Purim, people will call at your home – and you at theirs – to gift delectable food-gifts, not to demand them. And on Purim you would never dream of allowing your children to frighten people of a delicate constitution at their front doors by dressing in scary costumes and threatening to play a trick unless they reciprocate your gift.  Instead you will offer a heartfelt unconditional blessing of Purim Sameach.  And you will encourage your children to do the same.

Therefore it is inconceivable to me why any Jewish parent would allow their impressionable offspring to buy into the ultra-materialistic, self-centred, grasping Sodom-like culture of Hallowe’en – even forgetting the pagan/Christian aspect!  And to blazes with “peer pressure” and “all her friends are doing it!”  It is bound to have a corrosive effect on your child’s character. (For a similar reason, I never allowed my kids to “steal” the Afikoman at the Seder and hold us to ransom pending the promise of an expensive present. Instead we negotiated a modest gift in advance of the Seder.  I do not believe the custom of stealing or snatching the Afikoman, even if done in fun, is conducive to character building.)

Today, in multicultural Western societies, the way Xmas is celebrated belies its “sacred” origins. It is of course utterly commercialised, materialised, secularised and cheapened, and one hardly knows what it is celebrating.  For non-christians like us, this secularisation is, in a way, a blessed relief; but it will break a religious Christian’s heart.  However it has one redeeming feature.  It is a festival when people give presents and radiate good cheer.  There is no Xmas culture of children going to strangers and demanding gifts or threatening an unpleasant consequence.

Judaism is essentially all about giving, not demanding.  That is why I say that Hallowe’en is even more un-Jewish than Xmas!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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