The Give and Take of Halloween and Judaism

(Haley Phelps on Unsplash)
(Haley Phelps on Unsplash)

We do something called a Q & A with our religious school — Question Box — Questions that Siri and Alexa cannot answer. Most of the time, the kids ask questions, but sometimes, the parents slip one in.

I wanted to share one of those questions from a parent last week: Should Jews celebrate Halloween?

Now, what was the parent really asking…

What do you think?

I thought the following:

  • Rabbi, is it wrong if I send my child trick or treating?
  • What message am I sending my children?
  • Do we really have to be that different?
  • Why can’t Jews just have some fun with everyone else?
  • Rabbi, can I have permission to send my kids trick or treating?!?

First, I want to state the following- Halloween and whether Jews celebrate or not is not my main issue as a rabbi. My kids aren’t pestering us yet with asking to go — thankfully, they don’t see pictures of their friends trick and treating which would make them jealous. But I’m sure they will — and that’s what this is really about for parents.

But it did get me thinking about the holiday, and as a rabbi, I have to give an answer.

But first, I wanted to study a strange passage about the first Jew, Abraham. Speaking about dressing in a costume, our father Abraham, who was known as a man of faith, a man of kindness (Hesed), puts on a costume this week: he becomes a warlord. For one chapter, we read that Abraham goes into battle to save his nephew Lot.

Let’s back up a bit to explain how we got to this point- In short, Abraham and his nephew Lot come to fork in the road after they came together with Sarai and the people they made in their former land. They come to this new land and become prosperous, but they realize they cannot live together. Their herdsmen are fighting with each other, and it’s time for them to separate. Abraham says (Genesis 13:8-9)

וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֶל־לוֹט אַל־נָא תְהִי מְרִיבָה בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶיךָ וּבֵין רֹעַי וּבֵין רֹעֶיךָ כִּי־אֲנָשִׁים אַחִים אֲנָחְנוּ׃

Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.

הֲלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ לְפָנֶיךָ הִפָּרֶד נָא מֵעָלָי אִם־הַשְּׂמֹאל וְאֵימִנָה וְאִם־הַיָּמִין וְאַשְׂמְאִילָה׃

Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.”

Abraham gives Lot the first choice, and what does Lot choose? He looks around and sees this watered plain of the Jordan, Sodom and Gomorrah before they were destroyed. The Torah even says, “it’s like the garden of Eden.” Lot says, I’ll take that! And Abraham says, ok, take it! It reveals something about Abraham, a trend – Abraham is a giver, and Lot seems to be more of a taker.

Let me stop here and tell you about the difference between Givers and Takers.

Adam Grant, an Organizational Psychologist, wrote a book a couple of years ago, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Give And Take explains the three different types of how we interact with others and shows you why being a giver is, contrary to popular belief, the best way to success in business and life. He says there are three types of people in the world: givers, takers and matchers. According to Grant, “Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts. Garden-variety takers aren’t cruel or cutthroat; they’re just cautious and self-protective. “If I don’t look out for myself first,” takers think, “no one will.” breed.

But givers are different. They tilt reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they get. Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them.” But most of us are actually ‘matchers’– we give if someone else gives to us, and vice versa (in other words, quid pro quo). So who is more successful in life? In our story, Lot takes the most fertile piece of the land – better soil, more water, more food which will equal more money, right? But it doesn’t turn out like that, not in the story, and not in life. In the end, if Givers can see that they’re giving as having an impact or purpose, then they won’t burn out and keep going. He writes, “being a giver is not good for a 100-year dash, but it’s valuable in a marathon.”

In our story, while enjoying his rich land, Lot is taken captive in a war between Canaanite kings. And here’s what happens (Genesis 14:13):

וַיָּבֹא הַפָּלִיט וַיַּגֵּד לְאַבְרָם הָעִבְרִי וְהוּא שֹׁכֵן בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא הָאֱמֹרִי אֲחִי אֶשְׁכֹּל וַאֲחִי עָנֵר וְהֵם בַּעֲלֵי בְרִית־אַבְרָם׃

A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Abram’s allies.

Of course, Avram comes to the rescue to save his nephew who may not have done the same for him. Abraham puts on the costume, he becomes a warrior, and he defeats the enemies of Sodom and Gemorrah.

But in that line I shared, we learned something interesting – this story is the first time when Abraham is given the description, Ivri, or as we say, Hebrew. What is an Ivri?

The true origin and meaning of the word Ivri is unknown (there are many theories though). I wanted to share three suggestions found in the Midrash (rabbinic legend) Bereshit Rabbah 42:13:

  1. Eber refers to the grandson of Noah
  2. Ever means beyond – as the one beyond the Euphrates.
  3. The third, the Rabbis say, “All the world was on one side (‘ever) and he on the other side.”

In other words, Abraham was from a different place, both literally and figuratively. He had different values, he acted differently, he believed in one God, but he lived amongst people who didn’t necessarily believe as he and his family believed. And I think that part of what it means to be a Hebrew is to be like Abraham, to be a giver – to go against the grain of society at times.

And we see this after Abraham wins. He defeats the enemies of Sodom and Gemorrah, gets his nephew back gets all of their possessions and people. So what will Abraham the giver do? You may not be surprised – he gives everything back and lets his men take only a little for themselves.

And so we see that Abraham again proves that he is a giver, but he adds something else. When he answers the King of Sodom, he says the same thing back to him, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, but Abraham makes sure to mention God’s name – YHVH – the one God.

He gave because of God – his faith – because all the world was on one side, and he on the other.

And so, I come back to Halloween. I know, Halloween used to be a pagan holiday, but isn’t anymore. I know, you tell me it’s just like Thanksgiving. Here’s the thing, I don’t like Halloween because it has a simple message – trick or treat. We tell our children to go to people’s homes and take candy, and if they don’t get candy, well, we will give you a trick. We have a similar holiday, but it occurs in the spring – Purim. On Purim we dress up, but instead of taking, we give, mishloach manot, two types of candy to a friend, and we give gifts to the poor. So when we give, we also receive. When we give, especially to the poor, we get stronger because we see that we have a real purpose.

So the question we have to ask ourselves when we go trick or treating with our children is, what values do we want to teach them? I want to share what we do on Halloween. We don’t shut the lights off and hide, nor do we go trick or treating. We buy candy, and we have our children give the candy to people coming. But we try and get our neighbors’ name, and introduce ourselves to them. In that way, we prepare our children for our holiday, Purim, when we become givers, just like Abraham. And we are Ivrim, Hebrews, and sometimes it means that all the world is on one side (‘ever) and we are on the other side. But we are still here, and where are the other nations that Abraham fought with?

I won’t look at anyone differently if they go trick or treating, in the grand scheme of all the problems we are facing, Halloween and the Jews is not one of them, but maybe this Purim we should do something different. We should dress up in costumes, and instead of going to each door to take candy and sweets, we should give candy and sweets to others, especially our non-Jewish neighbors. Let’s commit to doing something different – giving, and not taking.

About the Author
David Baum serves as rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, a small (but mighty) Conservative Kehillah (community) in Boca Raton, Florida, sits on the Rabbinical Assembly Social Justice Commission, former president of the Southeast Region of the Rabbinical Assembly and Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis.
Related Topics
Related Posts