Halloween in Jewish Law: Religious and Cultural Transformation

Michael J. Broyde

Image by Alexa from Pixabay.

A number of years ago, I wrote an article addressing celebrating Thanksgiving according to Jewish law,1 See Michael J. Broyde, “The Celebrating of Thanksgiving at the End of November: A Secular or Religious Holiday” J. Halacha & Contemporary Society 30:42-66 (1995). which was published in Canopy Forum last year. In that article, I noted that most Jewish law authorities accept that: (1) Thanksgiving is an American holiday with secular origins, (2) While some people might celebrate Thanksgiving with religious rituals, this is unusual, and does not cause Thanksgiving to be classified as a Christian holiday, and (3) Jewish law permits one to celebrate secular holidays—indeed, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik encouraged such.

The article concluded that accordingly most modern American Jewish law authorities permit one to have a Thanksgiving celebration with one’s Jewish or secular friends and family, so long as one does not treat Thanksgiving as a religious ritual or holiday.2 See Michael J. Broyde, “The Celebrating of Thanksgiving at the End of November: A Secular or Religious Holiday” J. Halacha & Contemporary Society 30:42-66 (1995). This article was quite popular in the Anglo-Jewish press and was widely publicized and commented on.

A follow up literature soon developed, to my surprise, about a variety of other “‘secular”’ holidays, from New Year’s Day to Valentine’s Day and on to Halloween. I slowly commented on all of them, as this is part of the process of providing religious guidance to the Anglo-American traditional community, who are deeply interested in being both Jewish and American and want to participate in the best of both cultures.

Indeed, a number of people who asked about my view of participating in Halloween celebrations and were surprised when I responded that I was less in favor of celebrating Halloween than rejoicing at a Thanksgiving meal.

Indeed, a number of people who asked about my view of participating in Halloween celebrations and were surprised when I responded that I was less in favor of celebrating Halloween than rejoicing at a Thanksgiving meal. This is a classical case, I told people, where the application of the same rules to different sets of facts leads to a different rule of Jewish law. What follows is an explication of why Jewish law prohibits “’trick or treating”’ on Halloween and then a note on how cultural transformation might have changed that.

Pagan Customs and Practices in Jewish Law

In order to understand why one should not celebrate Halloween, a certain background into the nature of the prohibition to adopt customs of other faiths is understood in the Jewish tradition. One group of medieval Jewish law authorities, the Tosafot, who were initially the grandchildren of the great Jewish law authority, Rashi, and understood to be a general school of Jewish law, understood that two distinctly different types of non-Jewish customs are forbidden by the prohibition found in Leviticus 18:3, which states: “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes.” The first prohibition is idolatrous religious customs and the second is foolish customs found in the non-Jewish community, even if their origins are not idolatrous.3Tosafot Avodah Zara 11a ve’ei. Tosafot, and all of the other authorities discussed in this section are resolving a tension between the Talmud here and in Sanhedrin 52b

Rabbenu Nissim (Ran) and Rabbi Joseph Colon Trabbato (Maharik) disagree with the basic idea of this school of thought and rule that only customs that have a basis in idolatrous practices are prohibited. Apparently foolish but secular customs are permissible so long as they have a reasonable explanation and are not immodest.4Ran, commenting on Avodah Zarah 11a yisrael and Chidushai HaRan on Sanhedren 52b; Maharik, Responsa 58.

Normative Jewish law follows the more liberal ruling. As noted by Rabbi Moshe Isserles, “Those practices done as a Gentile custom or law with no reason one suspects that it in an idolatrous practice or that there is a taint of idolatrous origins; however, those customs which are practiced for a reason, such as the physician who wears a special garment to identify him as a doctor, can be done; the same is true for any custom done out of honor or any other reason is permissible.”5In his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dead 178:1

Rabbi Isserles thus clearly prohibits observing customs that have pagan origins, or even which might have pagan origins. His opinion, the most lenient found in normative Jewish law is the one widely followed.6Besides those authorities who favor the approach of Tosafot mentioned above, there are authorities who favor being strict for the opinion of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elija of Villna (Kramer) (also known as Gra), who rules that the only time “secular” customs are permissible is when they have a Jewish origin; see Gra YD 178:7. According to this approach, secular customs created by Gentiles are prohibited even when their origins are not religious. For a review of the authorities who disagree with the Gra, see Rabbi Yeheil Yacov Weinberg, Seride Esh 3:93. Thus, celebrating Thanksgiving in a secular manner is clearly permissible under this rule and perhaps eve according to the view of Tosafot, as well.

Halloween in History and in America

Applying these principles to Halloween requires that one explore the origins of Halloween as a holiday. Encyclopedia Britannica recounts the history of Halloween as follows:

Halloween also called All Hallows’ Eve or All Hallows’ Evening a holy or hallowed evening observed on October 31, the eve of All Saints’ Day. . . . In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic festival of Samhain eve was observed on October 31, at the end of summer. This date was also the eve of the new year in both Celtic and Anglo‑Saxon times and was the occasion for one of the ancient fire festivals when huge bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits….The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day, and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favourable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes. The pagan observances influenced the Christian festival of All Hallows’ Eve, celebrated on the same date. . . . Immigrants to the U.S., particularly the Irish, introduced secular Halloween customs that became popular in the late 19th century.

As was noted by German theologian and scholar of Irish and German literature, John Hennig, in his classical article on this topic, there is a clear historical relationship between the Celtic concepts of resurrection, Roman Catholic responses to it, and the modern American holiday of Halloween.

Thus, Halloween, unlike Thanksgiving, plainly has in its origins religious beliefs that are foreign to Judaism, and whose beliefs are prohibited to us as Jews. Based on this historical data, in order to permit Halloween celebrations, one would have to accepts the truthfulness of any of the following assertions: (1) Halloween celebrations have a secular origin, (2) The conduct of the individuals celebrating Halloween can be rationally explained independent of Halloween, (3) The pagan origins of Halloween or the Catholic response to it are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations can be attributed to some secular source or reason, and (4) The activities memorialized by Halloween are actually consistent with the Jewish tradition and have a Jewish origin.

For the reasons explained above, it is reasonable to aver that none of these statements are true. Halloween clearly does not have a secular origin; the explanation for what people are doing to celebrate Halloween can only be explained by reference to the Celtic origins of the holiday; there is no secular origin for Halloween and its pagan origins are readily known to all who look into it. Of course, there is no Jewish basis for Halloween.

Applying Jewish law rules to Halloween celebrations leads to the conclusion that participation in Halloween celebrations is prohibited. Halloween, since it has its origins in a pagan practice, and lacks any overt rationale reason for its celebration other than its pagan origins or the Catholic response to it, is governed by the statement of Rabbi Isserles that such conduct is prohibited as tainted by its origins. If the Jewish law conversation had stopped here, we would have a simple case. We have a holiday with clear origins in a pagan faith, investing in celebrations that harken back exactly to the pagan rituals that the Jewish tradition abhorred – ghosts, goblins, witches, and the like. It would seem easy to argue that the classical Jewish tradition should prohibit it. And that is what I always wrote,

Image by Ana Krach from Pixabay.

A Reconsideration

Yet a reconsideration is needed in light of modern times. Indeed, notwithstanding the origins of Halloween, one must recognize that the vast majority of the people in America who currently celebrate Halloween do not do so out of any sense of religious observance or feeling. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find a religion in the United States that recognizes Halloween as a religious holiday. Twenty-five years ago, in response to Christian assertions that Halloween celebrations are a form of pagan worship, Cheryl S. Clark wrote as follows:

One of my fondest memories of kindergarten was the first Halloween celebrated at school. I marched proudly from room to room in our elementary school in my Wilma Flintstone costume as a participant in the Halloween parade. The anticipation of the event was overwhelming, exciting and the fun was anything but sinister… To say that participating in Halloween leads to devil worship is like saying taking Tylenol leads to crack addition. Believe me, when I was marching in my Wilma Flintstone costume, the last thing on my mind was drawing pentagrams or performing satanic rituals. The only thought I had was that next year I’d be Pebbles!… It is only a few fringe group fundamentalist who seriously believe Halloween is a holiday for worshiping the devil.7Cheryl S. Clark, Halloween Atlanta Constitution, October 22, B1 (1995).

This statement appears to be a mostly truthful recounting of the modern American celebration of Halloween. The vast majority of people who celebrate Halloween have absolutely no religious motives at all — it is an excuse to collect candy or engage in mischievous behavior, or simply have a party. However, it is worth noting that there are still some people who celebrate Halloween religiously, and there are occasional court cases about employees who seek to take religious leave on Halloween day as a religious holiday. Indeed, the simple fact is that the origins of Halloween are pagan.

The passage of time since 1995 has only made it even more so clear that there is little religious or magical or mystical or even Catholic to Halloween. 

Yet it is clear from living in the real world that this letter writer from 1995 is correct. The passage of time since 1995 has only made it even more so clear that there is little religious or magical or mystical or even Catholic to Halloween. From Sabrina the Teen Age Witch to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to other popular culture examples that appropriate from occult traditions related to Halloween, it is clear that we are living in the era of entertainment, and not the era of religion.

The era of ghosts and goblins in Halloween costuming has been replaced by the era of Wilma and Pebbles, or even Barack and Donald. Although the leading Halloween listed in Google’s annual Frightgeist rundown was that of a witch, the remaining nine were: rabbit, dinosaur, Spider-Man, Cruella de Vil, fairy, Harley Quinn, Cowboy, and Clown. It is clearer now than any time before that the both the pagan origins of Halloween or the Catholic response to it are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations can now be attributed to a general secular culture that focuses on popular fantasies. A witch can be a religious figure placed in the same box as Mohamoud or Moses, or it can be in the same community as Spider-Man, Cruella de Vil and Harley Quinn. It is more and more clear to me that in the year 2021, witches are in the second room and not the first. Secular holidays are complex in the Jewish tradition and Halloween is a wonderful example of the changing culture in America and its impact on Jewish law. ♦

Michael J. Broyde is professor of law at Emory University School of Law, a senior fellow and projects director at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. He is a professor at Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies, and was last year a Fullbright Scholar at Hebrew University and visiting professor at Stanford Law School. His primary areas of interest are law and religion, Jewish law and ethics, family law, and comparative religious law.

Recommended Citation

Broyde, Michael. “Halloween in Jewish Law: Religious and Cultural Transformation.” Canopy Forum, December 15, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/12/15/halloween-in-jewish-law-religious-and-cultural-transformation/.