Earlier this evening, we had a really nice Challah-Ween program with our Tots, and right now they’re putting the finishing touches on their decorated little pumpkin, ghost, and spider challot. The origin of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, as it used to be called, is relatively unknown. Some believe it has its roots in the Celtic harvest festivals, while others argue it is a Pagan holiday. And others even trace it to the early Catholic church. In other words, despite what is happening in our multipurpose room right now, no one thinks this holiday is Jewish in origin. In fact, our more Orthodox friends would probably tell us that by dressing our kids up and taking them trick or treating, we are violating Leviticus 18:3, which says: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.”
To be fair, Halloween isn’t an Egyptian or Canaanite ritual, but you can see how the rabbis could expand this to “any other cultures.” And, after all, we have our own rituals for remembering the dead, in services such as Yizkor, and we have Purim if we want to dress up. But more contemporary rabbis understand that we are American Jews, and just as we were German Jews–Germans first, Jews second–we are Americans first, Jews second here. This is the basis on which Reform Judaism was founded. To be assimilated, to respect the laws and customs of the land in which we dwell, respond to modernity, and evolve with it.
So, we dress up our little ones as their favorite cartoon characters, favorite animals, robots and ghosts. Last week, before Shabbat, we took Asher, dressed as a llama (his choice) to a special Halloween celebration at his gymnastics studio. With “Monster Mash” playing in the background, I watched him and his friends–a wild assortment of superheroes and fairies and endangered species–run around tumbling, climbing, and jumping. It was difficult for me, a rabbi, to see the dangers of such an event and I can assure you that I lost no sleep worrying if his attendance there would somehow degrade his Jewish values and understandings.
Still, I am acutely aware that there is reason to be concerned that as Jews, as we assimilate more and more, there is the possibility to losing our Jewish identity to American customs and non-Jewish holidays (chanukah bush comes to mind here). So, rather than say Halloween has nothing to do with Judaism, I want to take tonight and use Halloween as our inspiration for the d’var. What is the spirit world, the world of the macabre, in Judaism?
In true Halloween spirit, we should probably start with ghosts. In Judaism, we call them Rafa, Ruach, or Ha-Met, a ghost, a spirit, or simply “the dead.” The idea that the ghosts of those who have passed away can continue to dwell among the living is actually an ancient Jewish belief. Some Jewish texts talk of ghosts that have yet to make the transition to the “world to come,” but some talk of spirits that are summoned by the living, or come to right a wrong in our world. Amazingly, at least two instances of ghosts or spirits occur in our Tanakh. The first is in 1st Samuel, chapter 28, when Saul engages in the practice of consulting ghosts to figure out what to do, and what his future holds. Even though Saul had outlawed the summoning of ghosts and spirits, he decides he needs them (politicians, it would seem, haven’t changed much in these thousands of years) so he consults a woman who helps him bring up the ghost of Samuel. The woman describes the ghost as an “old man coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” When Samuel is brought up he asks, “why have you disturbed me and brought me up?” In other words, Judaism’s first séance, right there in our Tanakh, bringing up the spirit of a dead king of Israel to provide wisdom and fortune-telling. Pretty cool!
The second ghost instance occurs in the book of Job, when one of his friends, trying to help him, tells Job a story about when a spirit visited him in the night. The story, I must say, is awfully “Halloweeny:”
A word came to me in stealth; My ear caught a whisper of it. In thought-filled visions of the night, When deep sleep falls on men, Fear and trembling came upon me, Causing all my bones to quake with fright. A spirit passed by me, Making the hair of my flesh bristle. It halted; its appearance was strange to me; A form loomed before my eyes; I heard a murmur, a voice…
Is that a ghost story or what? What’s really fascinating here is that 1st Samuel, and Job, are thought to have both been written in the 6th century BCE, which means that both authors seemed to have a solid understanding of ghosts and spirits, and that society accepted them as a reality at that time.
Within the writings of rabbinic literature–the Mishnah and the Talmud, dated 2nd to 5th century CE–ghosts are even more common. There are stories of ghosts hanging around graveyards and communicating with the living. They appear to us in dreams, or when we visit their resting places. They can be a source of good, wisdom, and help, or in the case of evil spirits such as the dybbuk, they can cause possession, and be a source of evil. But, as late as the 10th century CE, we see rabbinic legends and stories about spirits and the dead, including one from the minor tractates of Mishnah and Midrash, such as Avot De Rebbe Natan, which gives us some interesting perspective. It begins like this:
A story is told of a certain pious man who gave two dinars to a poor man during years of drought. His wife made his life unbearable. He went and slept in the graveyard where he heard two [female] spirits telling tales one to the other, and one speaking to the other. [Said the one:] ‘My friend, come, let us wander the world and see what tribulations are coming to the world.’ [Said the other:] ‘My friend, I cannot get out, because I am buried under a mat of reeds. Rather, you should go, and whatever you hear, report back to me.’”
There are plenty more, and maybe next Halloween I’ll give a Torah study on this literature but for now, let’s move on to zombies. Here’s one from the Talmud, Tractate Baba Batra 58a:
There was a certain magician who used to rummage among graves. When he was rummaging through to the grave of R.Tobi ben Mattenah, R. Tobi took hold of the magician’s beard. Another rabbi, Abaye, came by and saw this, and said to R. Tobi, “pray, leave him.” A year later the magician again came, and he R. Tobi again took hold of the magician’s beard, and Abaye came again witnessing this, but this time R. Tobi did not let go of the magician and Abaye had to bring scissors and cut off the magician’s beard.
How about demons? The Talmud talks about demons quite often. Here’s one from Tractate Berachot 6a, with a fascinating understanding of them:
It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the demons. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge around a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand. Raba says: The crushing of the crowd in the Kallah [yearly public] lectures comes from them. Fatigue in the knees comes from them. The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them. The bruising of the feet comes from them.
These stories are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s plenty more out there, hidden in our Tanakh, our Talmud, and later literature. So while we certainly don’t take part in a pagan holiday celebrating the rise of the dead, I think it’s safe to dress up our children as characters, and go get candy, knowing that Judaism has its own legends, its own history of the spirit world. These stories are embedded in our holy works; they aren’t outliers or independent texts. Ghosts, zombies, demons, dragons, sorcerers– they’re all in there, for us to tell our children around the campfire, knowing that these are Jewish stories, a part of our culture.
But, more important than that, is the fact that when we take our children trick-or-treating, to Halloween parties, dressing up and enjoying an Americanized holiday, we celebrate how far we’ve come from the shtetl, from the ghettos, from the isolated communities of history, that we can walk as Americans around other Americans doing American things. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of a synagogue in Los Angeles, Valley Beth Shalom, really sums up the benefits of Jews participating in Halloween. He says:
On Halloween, we open our homes to one another. On Halloween, we come out from behind solid-core doors and dead-bolts locks and electronic burglar alarms. The doorbell is met, not with a gruff ‘Who’s there?’ and a suspicious eye in the peep-hole, but with a smile and sweets. On Halloween, and only on Halloween, we pretend we are a neighborhood again … families from disparate backgrounds who share common civic values, making life together in a common space. If only once a year, I want my kids to see what it’s like when fear subsides, and people trust one another enough to open their doors.
So, this Tuesday evening, let’s go out and celebrate our Jewish culture, the ghost stories of our texts, and do what we Reform Jews are taught to do: open our doors to others.