To Trick or Treat?

Rabbi's Message - October 26, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

As a child, Halloween was about dressing up, getting candy, and coming up with new torturous swim practices in the name of Halloween “fun”.   Good, clean, fall fun – right?   For Jews, the answer might be a little more nuanced.  The issue boils down to the prohibition for Jews to worship idols.  As a monotheistic religion, we take the whole ‘no idols’ thing pretty seriously.

We know that Halloween has pagan origins, so the argument that it could be considered connected to idol worship isn’t so farfetched.  Some Jewish thinkers argue, that there is “no real reason for a child to dress up and collect candy on this specific day of the year.”  Biased as the mom of young children, I imagine if you spun the argument about not having a reason to dress up and get candy around, you’d be hard pressed to find a majority of younger children that would say ‘no’ to the idea of playing dress-up and treats.

But, asking 5-year-olds about free candy might not be the best way to make informed Jewish decisions.  Others would argue that modern celebrations on and around October 31st are so far removed from their pagan origins.  Much like you’d be hard-pressed to find a majority of Christian Americans today that would say Christmas trees shouldn’t be part of Christmas because of their pagan origins (which up until even the early 1800s they were in America).   If one believes that something can be separated from its history, that things change, that time changes, then if current Halloween celebrations don’t resemble idolatrous practices, it would be kosher for Jews.

The question may still not be as simple as asking if Halloween is truly about worshipping the devil or chocolate bars.  The stickier part of the discussion in Jewish legal literature comes about through notions of the propriety of engaging in the ways of other, non-Jewish, ethnic/religious groups.  Which, post-emancipation, I think is ultimately a question of how we as Jews respond to modernity and the challenges of living in our modern world.  Would trick-or-treating, a costume party, or a silly sports workout undermine our religious identity and practice as a Jew?  Personally, I don’t think it does, especially in a year where October 31 doesn’t fall on Shabbat.  That said, I also think it’s a great time to use the history and current practice as an opportunity to model for ourselves and our children what kind of thinking goes into making these decisions and reflecting on what values we hold most high.  Perhaps there is a way to elevate your spooky antics with Jewish values – can you reuse a Purim costume instead of buying or making a new one?  Could you donate some of your candy to first-responders, shelters, or somewhere else afterward?  What else could you do?  With that in mind, have a fun and safe last week of October.  (And don't worry - the religious school team has some special spooky-themed fun for our session on Sunday.  See you then!)