Its almost spooky: Many Jewish rituals found in Halloween

Chayei Sara

Genesis 23:1–25:18

I Kings 1:1–1:31

Sunday is Halloween, and most every element of Halloween is found within the Jewish tradition in general, or within Purim in particular. The superstitions of Halloween can be found within within our traditions, as well.

The differences between the two are not so much in the rituals but rather in the meanings attached to them. The following descriptions of Halloween were taken from a variety of Internet and encyclopedic resources.

Dressing up in costumes: On Halloween, kids like to dress up as the devil, to frighten. During Purim kids dress like Esther, Mordechai and Haman. Dressing up is a way to aspire to be like someone else, or to escape into our fantasies. So Purim and Halloween have that in common.

Trick or treat: People once believed that ghosts roamed the Earth on Halloween. They also thought all witches met on Oct. 31 to worship the devil. Today, these supernatural beings remain symbols of Halloween: tricking people, like ghosts do. On Purim we give gifts to the poor — because when you escape from the disaster of Haman (the devil) you give tzedakah; and you exchange gifts with one another (shalach manot), because that’s what you do when you celebrate being born or being alive.

Mischief night or fire night: Jack-o’-lanterns are made to scare the demons away. Most jack-o’-lanterns contain a candle or some other light. According to an Irish legend, jack-o’-lanterns were named for a man called Jack who could not enter heaven because he was a miser. He could not enter hell either, because he had played jokes on the devil. As a result, Jack had to walk the earth with his lantern until Judgment Day.

In Israel, Purim is a day when children are allowed to drink and virtually get drunk. Ad lo yada — people hit each other on the heads with plastic hammers that tweet and spray foam at each other, meaning: You get drunk to the point of not knowing whether you are saying blessed is Mordechai or cursed be Haman. So much for Jewish mischief.

Memorializing the righteous: All Saints’ Day (Halloween) developed from ancient new year festivals and festivals of the dead. In the 800s, the Christian church established All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, so people could continue a festival they had celebrated before becoming Christians. The Mass celebrated on All Saints’ Day was called Allhallowmas. The evening before All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallows’ Eve, or All Hallow E’en. In the Megillah we read that Mordechai and Esther were righteous Jews who saved their people from destruction. The fast of Esther is observed the day before Purim to commemorate her righteous behavior.

Telling stories: In England, Halloween was sometimes called Nutcrack Night or Snap Apple Night. Families sat fireside and told stories while they ate apples and nuts. That’s exactly what we do when we read the Megillah.

Fortune-telling: Certain fortune-telling methods began in Europe hundreds of years ago and became an important part of Halloween. For example, objects such as a coin, ring or thimble were baked into a cake or other food (because metal scares demons). It was believed that the person who found the coin in the cake would become wealthy. Today, some people use such fortune-telling techniques as card reading or palmistry. And on Purim, too — lots were cast by Haman to determine what day all the Jews should be destroyed. Just like the dreidel of Chanukah.

Special foods: On Halloween, poor people who went out a-souling received pastries called soul cakes — in exchange for promising to say prayers for the dead. Of course, on Purim we give one another hamantaschen (which symbolize Haman’s ears, or pockets).

Folklore and superstition are found in all cultures and traditions and remain within all of us. The issue is how we use them and interpret them for meanings that are in tune with mainstream Jewish values.

 May the superstitions of the Jewish people and our folkways never become a force for blinding us to the moral and ethical norms of righteous Jewish living, and may they enable us to give and to share the best of all of our religious traditions.

Rabbi Larry Raphael
is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.