"I grew up Jewish in America, and my family always loved celebrating Halloween. I have become more observant of Judaism as an adult, and I noticed that orthodox Jews in my neighborhood do not celebrate Halloween. Is it okay for Jews to celebrate Halloween?"
Thank you for your question.
Is it okay for American Jews to celebrate Halloween? That only begs the question, what is Halloween, anyway?
Halloween is a great example of how holidays can change meaning over time. Halloween started as a Celtic holiday to celebrate the harvest, like holidays in most cultures at this time of year. The Celts, however, believed that the holiday posed danger because the dead could interfere with the living on this day.
The holiday was later appropriated by Christians as the eve of All Saints Day, observed on November 1. The name of the holiday reflects its observance as "All Hallows Even." In one medieval custom, poor people would travel from house to house on All Saints Day asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead. Halloween is no longer observed by the church in any way on October 31.
When Halloween hit America, it took on yet another meaning. On these shores, the holiday became an amalgam of symbols from the Celtic holiday, the Christian custom of traveling from house to house, harvest symbols (like the Jack O'-lantern), and contemporary symbols of fright and death. The holiday, as it is observed in America, has entirely lost its connection to any religious meaning or observance.
There is no religious reason why contemporary Jews should not celebrate Halloween as it is commonly observed by dressing in costumes, giving children candies and other treats, and by taking our own young children out to "Trick-or-Treat." As a secular holiday, Halloween should be no more problematic for Reform Jews than are Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. Halloween's focus on fright and death can be a good opportunity for talking to young children about their fears, although it should not be taken to excess.
This year, Halloween falls on a Friday, so there are inevitable questions about Trick-or-Treating interfering with Shabbat. In my own family, we plan on early Trick-or-Treating in our neighborhood with our young children, followed by a Shabbat dinner at home. Our children's Shabbat meal probably will be concluded with a bit more candy than usual.
I hope this is helpful.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser
Congregation Beth Israel