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 Hallowe'en and the Shopping Bag #797

10/06/2023 05:29:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Hoshanah Rabbah/Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah 

Hallowe'en and the Shopping Bag

My mother used to tell the story of a life-changing incident that occurred on October 31, 1957.

I was a kind little soul who, at the age of four, had just learned to open the front door. So, it was not odd when someone knocked at 5:30 p.m. for me to walk toward our apartment door to see who was there.

I still remember—more than 65 years later—the sharp pang of shock across my belly, as I twisted the door handle and pulled the door open.

There stood two nine-year-olds dressed in skeleton suits, holding orange pails full of candy and screaming “Trick or Treat.”

I yelped and dashed to my room; it took two hours to get me out, and another few months before I felt confident answering the door again.

Hallowe’en. It’s never been one of my favorites.

In Judaism, we have Purim. Children are encouraged to dress up as Queen Esther, Mordechai or other positive characters. We send each other goodie baskets known as Shalach Manot.

We hold carnivals. And as the Talmud instructs, we attempt to bring positivity and hope to the world around us.

And then there is Hallowe’en.

With the store shelves already dripping bags of candy, this week, a few congregants asked me if it’s “Jewishly okay” to celebrate Hallowe’en. And I replied, “Yes, of course—but…”

Dressing up can fun and creative. We get to assume different personalities. We allow our children to load up on sweets. It brings them joy. What can be wrong with that?

The Talmud notes that it is fine to celebrate secular holidays if they contribute goodness to the world and to ourselves. In the United States we have many such positive examples.

Thanksgiving teaches us gratitude. New Year’s motivates us to adopt resolutions involving health and fitness. MLK Day, Presidents’ Day and Columbus Day encourage us to re-examine historical heroes and themes.

And Christmas—with its secondary rituals of gift giving and good food—can help build bridges between Jews and Christians.

 All of these can facilitate Tikun Olam—the building of bridges, and the repair of the world.

But like all things Jewish, we are encouraged to delve deeper.

Indeed, Hallowe’en originated with the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, a day on which the devil was invoked for the various divinations.

Notes the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day.” It adds that the “Autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins…and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about.”

In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church officially made it part of its religious mosaic.

So, as we prepare our children for what can be an enjoyable day of dressing up, fun and candy, let us also be aware that there are two directions we can follow.

The first is to pursue, through choice of costume and activity, the Jewish path of positivity. The other is to conjure up—however innocent it may seem—practices involving Avodah Zara—idolatry and the worship of darkness.

It may be subliminal but it does matter.

This is the week where Judaism completes the High Holiday season. Today is Hashanah Rabbah—termed by some as “Little Yom Kippur.”

It’s a day to reflect upon our Yom Kippur resolutions, and if we have already run off course, to reboot. There is also Shemini Atzeret—the eighth day of the Sukkot season.

And Saturday night, we celebrate Simchat Torah, the completion of the reading of the Torah as we return to the Book of Genesis and the story of creation. 

And so, upon completion of these Jewish celebrations, let us consider how our families can participate in a thoughtful way in the popular—not historical—nuances of Hallowe’en.

For even though I’m not a big Hallowe’en fan, any time we venture out of the ordinary, we, as Jews, tend to learn something new. 

And so it is, that my mother tells a second Hallowe’en story:

It was a drizzly night in Montreal on October 31—about 60 years ago—as I walked the streets with my little brother in tow.

My brother, Ron, was barely four years old as we canvassed nearby homes on Mackenzie Street. The brown paper shopping bag he was carrying was almost as tall as he was.

At every door, neighbors dropped in candy, chocolate bars and the occasional apple. And, after about a half hour, we returned home.

Suddenly, my brother began to cry.

Over the half hour we had been trick or treating, Ron had been dragging his shopping bag on the wet pavement.

There was nothing but a hole where the bottom once was. He had no candy.

So—we lifted my little brother onto his bed, dumped out my bag of candy, and we shared 50-50 what “we” had collected.

There are many things which create strong bonds between brothers. Thoughtful parents. Common values. Endless hours throwing a baseball in the back yard.

But somehow, on that Hallowe’en night, I learned a valuable lesson: That, it’s not so much about the technical reason for celebrating the holidays—it’s more about the bonds we create by sharing them.

So, maybe the ancient rabbis were right. Even non-Jewish holidays can become meaningful parts of our lives.

As we partake in these final Jewish holidays and consider how we will engage in the upcoming secular celebration, let us remember to focus on the love and the sharing contained within each.

Hallowe’en is not my favorite holiday, but perhaps the lesson I learned that day in 1961 contributes to who my brother and I are today.

Whether it’s our holiday ortheir holiday, I believe God loves special occasions of all kinds—when they are celebrated with sharing, positivity and love.

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Tue, November 28 2023 15 Kislev 5784