Halloween is big business: The National Retail Federation estimates consumers will spend about the same in 2018 as last year’s record $9.1 billion.
Industries have been built around costumes, and supermarkets and convenience stores stock up on candy and chocolate in October. Homeowners deck their yards and houses with spooky decorations, preparing for the deluge of trick-or-treaters trickling into the streets come Oct. 31.
Lost in the madness is the reality of Halloween’s origins. The holiday is marketed as a secular occasion, but many believe it is rooted in Celtic paganism. Many Jews opt out for a simple reason: Halloween isn’t a Jewish holiday.
“Primarily, it is not our religion. It’s a religious holiday that’s not Jewish,” said Rabbi Moshe Brennan of Chabad of Penn Wynne. “It actually started with other religions that we would refer to as idol worshipers.”
It is believed Halloween originated from the Gaelic festival Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season and the start of the “darker half” of the year. It was celebrated from Oct. 31-Nov. 1, with people lighting bonfires and donning costumes designed to scare off ghosts. It was eventually adopted by Catholicism, according to History.com: “Pope Gregory III designated Nov. 1 as a time to honor all saints; soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve and, later, Halloween.”
The modern iteration of the holiday is bereft of those religious roots. Instead, the day is celebrated in the United States by people of all faiths, from little kids pleading with neighbors for candy to costumed college students in search of a party.
Most Orthodox Jews abstain from the festivities, however, citing Halloween’s alleged pagan connections.
“Others may argue that that’s where it started, but that’s not where it is today,” Brennan said. “We all want some days to look forward to. … In Judaism we’re not short of those holidays. We do have them. For those who only go to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you’re missing out on the rest. There’s Purim, Simchat Torah … all these holidays are times we celebrate, and get together.”
Jews who don’t celebrate Halloween have found enjoyment in Purim, the annual commemoration of the saving of the Jewish people from Haman. Celebrants don masks and costumes, drink wine and exchange gifts. Purim begins in 2019 on March 20.
“When they dress up, they go around asking for things. When we dress up, we go around giving things,” Brennan said. He noted that he has no problem celebrating Thanksgiving, given its secular nature. “It’s a bunch of people celebrating America,” he said.
Rabbi Mendy Cohen is Chabad of the Main Line’s director of youth activities. He works with many students who don’t come from Orthodox backgrounds, and the topic of Halloween is sometimes mentioned. His response is simple.
“I explain that Halloween is not a Jewish holiday,” Cohen said. “My job as a rabbi and as a teacher and director of the Hebrew school is to teach the Torah.”
Some families let their children participate in Halloween festivities without engaging themselves.
Bruce Dizengoff, whose family is Conservative and attends Chabad of Main Line, said he does not put up decorations. But his children trick-or-treated when they were younger, and he stocks up on candy to hand to neighborhood kids.
“We give [our kids] the freedom to experience secular, American holidays, which is what Halloween is,” Dizengoff said. “We do put up decorations for Purim.”
Ron Gross, who lives in Center City, said his children never really asked about Halloween when they were younger. But the family would often venture into the city and marvel at their neighbors’ decorations. And the children would come away with some inspiration.
“My kids got all these ideas for Purim, seeing all the [Halloween] costumes,” Gross said.
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