Jews and Halloween: To Treat or not to Treat?

I grew up with this funny custom of knocking on strangers’ doors once a year to ask for free candy. By the end of the night, I had enough sugar to last a lifetime. Three decades later, we won’t be sending our children door-to-door. Purim will be our time for costumes and gift exchanging, but we will always open the door, greet children with a smile, and provide them with their requested trick-or-treat (however I fear my tricks would disappoint a hopeful youngster). halloween image 1

Jews have always been nervous about Halloween due to its presumptive pagan roots. Some have even argued that it is forbidden by Jewish law to have any involvement at all. I can understand why we don’t dress up and go door to door, but there is no need to turn off our lights and close ourselves from the community. It is a nice opportunity to meet new people in the community and spread goodwill.

Appropriately, the roots of Halloween are murky. Some say with confidence that the holiday’s roots go back to the Celtic festival of Samhain (November 1), where on the eve it was believed that the spirits of the dead arose and caused mischief, so people disguised themselves to blend in with the spirits. Later, they claim, when the Romans invaded that they brought their holidays, including one honoring the dead, and another honoring the fruits and trees (Pomona), symbolized by the apple. Finally, the Christians sought to incorporate some of the pagan customs and created All Saints Day, the eve of which in middle English was All-hallows eve, which eventually became Halloween.  halloween image 2

Skeptics, on the other hand, have noted that Samhain was celebrated on different dates in different regions, and that some people have employed a pick and choose method for matching the customs to Halloween. As for the Christian attempt to usurp the pagan holiday, there is no proof that there was any intention to replace Samhain or to adopt any of the supposed customs. Even without an examination of history, it should be obvious that many customs are of modern origin. For example, pumpkins (and thus Jack o’lanterns) were native to the Western Hemisphere, so they were not present in Europe until long after the Celtic period. As for giving apples, we do not need the Romans to tell us to give a fruit that is in season during a harvest festival. In addition, it stands to reason that cheap and plentiful candy is also a modern development, so modern trick-or-treating is a modern custom.

Trick or treaters on the porchWhat we do know is that in the 19th century Halloween was marked by the telling of ghost stories and youths engaging in mischievous activities. Later, there was a concerted effort to transform the holiday into a family-oriented, secular harvest festival. The heyday of trick-or-treating took place in the post-World War 2 period, when the growth of suburbia and its safe neighborhoods, the huge emerging baby boomer generation emerged (and this was also the pinnacle of the low-budget, campy horror movie), many families were at home to answer the door and give children individual bags full of different candies, and society embraced the custom. Strangely, however, the baby boomers seemed to have taken Halloween with them as they grew up. Instead of putting on an old sheet and a cheap mask bought at a local candy store, adults now began to buy increasingly elaborate costumes and decorate their homes for parties. In October 2012, for example, 2 million people came to Greenwich Village in New York City for the annual Halloween Parade, and about 9 of 10 were adults. This trend has been accompanied by a period when people have been increasingly afraid to allow their children out, and so trick-or-treating has declined.

Incredibly, Halloween has become the second-leading holiday for decorating in the United States, and one would be hard-pressed to find any Christian or idolatrous elements. According to the National Retail Federation, about 158 million Americans (nearly 44 percent) are expected to participate in Halloween activities this year, slightly less than last year. Annual spending on decorations, costumes, and candy has averaged about $75-$80 recently, with total spending expected to be $6.9 billion this year. In a trend that began with the baby boomers, there will be more spent on adult costumes ($1.22 billion) than children’s costumes ($1.04 billion). Incredibly, Americans are expected to spend $330 million on costumes for their pets. In terms of activities, 72 percent will hand out candy, 47.5 percent will decorate their property, 44.2 percent will carve a pumpkin, 31.7 percent will take their children trick-or-treating, and nearly 31 percent will attend or host a party. Modern costumes, far from ghosts and witches, are more likely to be movie characters or actors, political figures, and even inanimate objects, not very different from Purim costumes.

It is my hope that we will spend less money, add more healthful options to the mix, participate in more sharing, engage in more inclusive communal activities, take more safety precautions and become more reflective about the themes of the time. Further those who celebrate Halloween might learn from those who celebrate Purim. On Purim, kids knock on the door to give gifts. On Halloween kids knock on the door to ask for gifts.

Oddly, people tend to worry about things that are not true, and ignore the true risks of Halloween. In nearly all cases, allegations of poison candy, apples with razor blades inside, and other candy tampering have fortunately mostly been proven to be urban legends. However, children are four times more likely to tragically be struck by an automobile on Halloween than on any other day of the year. This night (and every night) we must be as careful as possible in the streets as drivers and pedestrians.

Youths have a tradition of causing some minor vandalism on Halloween (the “trick” threat). In certain areas of the north and northeast, the evening before Halloween is still knows as “Mischief Night,” or “Goosey Night,” or some variant. Those unfortunate enough to have to park their car on a street may find their car pelted with eggs, and homeowners may find their trees have toilet paper in their branches, but it rarely gets more destructive. However, in Detroit, the evening before Halloween was called “Devil’s Night,” which for decades was marred by many incidents of arson that burned down buildings. In 1984, for example, arsonists lit 297 fires, earning Detroit the dubious title of “arson capital of the world.” After strong efforts to reduce the level of arson, it flared again to a similar level in 1994, leaving many injured and homeless people. Eventually, Detroit succeeded in changing “Devil’s Night” into “Angel’s Night,” with far less destructive activities. This illustrates that a community can take hold of a holiday and redirect it to a more constructive purpose.

halloween image 4Even more than meeting new community members and offering goodwill, there is some benefit to be gained from embracing the secular/cultural holiday of Halloween. It is a time for us to reconsider the mystical questions some raise about guests, demons, and spirits. It is a time for us to look back at our Jewish mystical and philosophical literature to better understand approaches to angels, spirits, providence, and miracles. Everything around us provides an opportunity for learning and Halloween is no exception. There is a human need and desire to understand our spiritual existence. Halloween is one of the ways that Americans have created to grapple with this. Let us not squander the opportunity with demon costumes and candy but use it as an intellectual and spiritual opportunity for spiritual growth.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.