This is an interesting and somewhat controversial question. We live in a Christian culture, making it sometimes challenging to separate the religious from the secular.
Sefer Vayikra (Book of Leviticus) provides the source of the prohibition against celebrating gentile customs (18:3). The rabbinic tradition understands this to mean refraining from idolatrous practices or foolish customs. On the other hand, certain practices with no suspicion of idolatrous background can be observed. Thanksgiving, for instance, is a uniquely American secular holiday which can be celebrated by Jews.
Halloween is more complicated. The holiday clearly has pagan origins in the holiday Samhain. It was eventually adopted by the Catholic Church and changed into All Hallows’ Eve as a means of combating the pagan practices associated with it. Halloween came to America with Irish Immigrants, keeping its Celtic origins and focusing on the supernatural, though according to many, it had already morphed into a secular holiday.
This brings us back to whether Jews should celebrate Halloween. For those who are concerned about whether it is pagan or religious in nature, please consider these questions:
1. Are Halloween celebrations derived from secular origins?
2. Can the conduct of those celebrations be rationally explained, independent of Halloween?
3. Are the origins of Halloween so deeply hidden that they have disappeared and can be attributed now as a uniquely American custom?
4. Are the activities of Halloween aligned to Jewish tradition and values?
People answer these questions differently. I know some observant families who allow their children to participate in Halloween because they have concluded it is a uniquely American custom whose origins are hidden and have no modern applicability or relevance.
My personal stance is that Halloween is the antithesis of everything Jewish. Judaism celebrates creation, life, sacredness, light, and goodness. Halloween celebrates death, darkness, evil, monsters, witches, and ghosts that haunt.
In our home, our children never participated in Halloween. As they became older teenagers and young adults they made their own decisions. When it came to giving out treats on Halloween, we did allow our children to participate. Giving out candy supports the value of Darchei Shalom, the way of peace, which includes being neighborly.
I stand alone in my family today. My young adult children see nothing wrong with participating in Halloween. They and my wife see it as uniquely American. I still maintain my position, if for no other reason than that I am uncomfortable promoting celebrations that fly in the face of the Jewish view of the sacredness of life.
As parents, you will make the decision that is best for your family. Whatever the decision, I hope that you take this time to have a Jewish conversation with your children and help them to understand the differences between our values and those of Halloween. It’s a beautiful learning opportunity.
Finally, here is a positive challenge for everyone who participates in Halloween: For those of you who have Halloween parties and enjoy dressing up, consider our own Jewish celebrations and embrace Purim as an opportunity to wear costumes, have parties, and have fun. Next fall, plan to build a Sukkah in your back yard. This is a great holiday filled with decorations, outdoor activities and time together, making Jewish memories that will last a lifetime. If you need help bringing Purim or Sukkot into your home, or any other Jewish holiday, ask us – it would be our honor to help.
Our own tradition provides so many rich opportunities – embrace them as well!