As we get closer to Halloween, I am often asked about my views regarding this holiday. Here is my sermon from October 31, 2009.
Just the other day, I picked up my six-year-old daughter, Jessica, from a playdate. And on the way home, she said to me, “Daddy – there are ten really great days in the year.” Intrigued by this statement, I replied: “Oh – what are they?” And very methodically, she listed – the eight days of Hanukkah, her birthday and Halloween.
I had to admit that it was a pretty good list – especially from the perspective of a six-year-old. After all, what could be better than those days upon which you get presents, treats, dress-up clothes or some combination of all those things?
For many years, the Jewish community tried to ignore Halloween or suggest that celebrating Halloween was the equivalent of celebrating Christmas. In other words, Halloween was somehow inconsistent with Jewish values and beliefs. After all, Halloween (or All Hallows Eve) is the modern incarnation of Samhain – the pagan celebration of the end of summer. And anything pagan is necessarily antithetical to Judaism, right?
But, just a few weeks ago, we joined together in this sanctuary with Lulav and Etrog to celebrate Sukkot. There is no question that our palm frond rituals are based on older palm frond rituals of pagans and Romans. Tomorrow morning, if you were to join us for morning Minyan, you would see some people wearing tefillin (phylacteries), which are a Jewish version of amulets – one of the oldest religious symbols in the world. These are just two examples of how the rabbis took older, pagan rituals and made them Jewish.
The truth is that the rabbis have a long history of trying to do away with popular customs or holidays only to lose the battle with the people. For example, the rabbis hated Hanukkah because it celebrated a military victory. In the 63 tractates of the Talmud which represent centuries of rabbinic discussion on Jewish law, Hanukkah gets a few lines in the Tractate on Shabbat and that’s it. But, the people LOVED Hanukkah because it gave them hope during difficult times and it stuck around.
The rabbis hated the prayer ‘Kol Nidrei’ because it diminished the value of oaths and vows. But, the people LOVED ‘Kol Nidrei’ because it gave them peace of mind that they might still enter the world to come if they were forced to speak against God due to persecution and torture. We know that ‘Kol Nidrei’ is still an indispensable part of the High Holiday liturgy.
So, the rabbis tried to find a way to infuse these customs and traditions with Jewish values in order to make them tolerable. In other words, many traditions that we assume are strictly Jewish have some link to pagan practices – only we have forgotten those pagan practices because we have “Juda-ized” them and added new layers of meaning.
While much is made of Halloween’s pagan origins, the truth is that the Halloween celebrated today by Americans bears little or no resemblance to the harvest festival celebrated by the ancient Celts and Gaels. It has become a secular holiday with two major customs associated with it: dressing up in costume and trick-or-treating.
Now in a perfect world, we would not need to add this holiday to our calendar. We have Purim, we have Simhat Torah and we have Hanukkah – all of which are great, kid-friendly, treat-filled holidays. But, despite rabbinic objections over the years, Halloween seems to have stuck. So, as a rabbi, I can continue to suggest to our Jewish families that they ignore Halloween, which really only invites them to ignore me. Or, we can try to infuse these customs with Jewish values.
Now I grew up in Detroit, where Halloween was associated with arson, vandalism and real mayhem. I am pleased to say that here in the suburbs of New Jersey, these things are not a part of the typical Halloween celebration. But, the basic concepts of scaring people through costumes or pranks and greedily trying to get as much candy as possible ARE very much a part of Halloween. And these are not exactly the kinds of values that we should be encouraging or teaching.
So, what can we do?
First of all, when choosing costumes with our children, hopefully we can take the opportunity to talk about modesty. In particular, some of the costumes available for girls are incredibly inappropriate. Further, when choosing what to give out for Halloween and in assessing the night’s “haul” it is an opportunity to discuss kashrut. Kashrut – the system of Jewish dietary laws – is designed to help us understand that just because we have a huge bag of candy, doesn’t mean we have to eat the whole thing. God has given us a planet full of wonderful things to eat, and yet we place limits on ourselves. We show some restraint and we show gratitude for these blessings.
Next, instead of focusing on getting as much candy as possible, we should give our kids a chance to give out the candy and feel the pleasure of sharing with others – for that is what truly makes a neighborhood or a community. Or, when our kids come home with enough candy to last until they have children of their own, set aside a portion for the food pantry or the homeless shelter for kids who don’t get to experience all the blessings that our kids have in their lives.
On top of all that, when Halloween falls on a Shabbat as it does this year, we have another opportunity. We can show our kids that it is possible to celebrate Shabbat AND Halloween. One does not have to choose between the two. Figure out a way to do something special for Shabbat today – turn off the TV, play a game together as a family, read a book, avoid the mall – in addition to celebrating Halloween this evening.
In this week’s portion, we read how Avram and Sarai went down to Egypt and they played a little charade. Avram told Sarai to pretend to be his sister and not his wife. He was worried that the Egyptian authorities would kill him in order to seize Sarai his beautiful wife. As a result of this little ruse, Sarai ended up in the Pharaoh’s harem and Avram was compensated with sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves and camels.
We dress up in order to get candy. Avram and Sarai dressed up and they became wealthy people. But, in doing so, they forgot who they really were. They abandoned their core values. The Ramban – also known as Nachmanides who wrote a commentary on the Bible in 13th Century Spain – said as readers of the Bible we should “know that our father Avraham committed a great sin.”
If we dress up tonight and forget who we are and what we stand for, then we are making the same mistake as Avram did all those years ago in Egypt. If, however, we dress up and bring our values and principles to Halloween, then we are making the holiday even better. More importantly, we are showing our kids and ourselves that we don’t have to choose between being Jewish and being a part of our neighborhoods tonight. We can do both, and we can be proud of both as long as we don’t allow our costume to mask who we really are and what we really believe in.
So, Shabbat Shalom and for those who choose to celebrate – have a Happy Halloween filled with appropriate costumes, sharing of treats and a strong sense of neighborliness.