How many people here love Halloween? I do. As a kid, my mom and I would carve pumpkins and then make pumpkin seeds with lots of salt on them. I love putting together elaborate Halloween costumes and then parading around town and most of all I love collecting and devouring bagfuls of decadent candy.
About 12 years ago, I worked at a Jewish Day School in Washington, DC. It was the week before Halloween and one of my friends wanted to do a math lesson using pumpkin seeds. The principal would not allow her to do it, because Halloween is not a Jewish holiday.
This year, Halloween was on a Thursday, one night after Hebrew school and one night before Shabbat. There have been times when Halloween falls on one of these, and it creates a bit of a dilemma: Should classes be cancelled given the popularity of Halloween and the reality that few kids will come to Hebrew school? Or should it remain open out of principle? What should we as a Jewish religious establishment decide? What would you do?
Put another way—is Halloween Treif or Treat?
I do not intend on swaying your opinion to one side or the other, but I would like to briefly explore the ritual of trick or treating. This practice of going from house to house in costume and asking for treats is ingrained in our culture. Or for some of our parents, it's the practice of walking around with your children while they do so, and then "sharing" in some of the candy.
This practice is believed to date back to the Middle Ages—in the form of a Christian tradition called souling when poor people would go door to door asking for food—usually requesting soul cakes—which were made out of bread and currents. In exchange for the cakes, the soulers would promise to say prayers on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors.
Later when practice of going door to door at this time of year was brought to the United States by Irish, Scottish and English immigrants, the ritual took on a new form. In the 1930’s trick or treating became something of an extortion plot initiated by older kids or teenagers that acted like gangsters, hence the expression "trick or treat."
For many, Halloween is the only time people see or meet their neighbors. And the only reason to be friendly and hospitable at this time of year is that most Americans have bought into the this ritual game of trick or treat visits. Trick or treat—ok I’ll open my doors for you now —I will even offer you something to eat—although we both know that I have barely spoke to you this entire year—if ever.
Neighbors are often people we don't know that well, strangers.. We are taught to fear strangers, and we may sometimes feel that offering help to a stranger is an inconvenience at best and a risk our own safety at worse.
By contrast—Abraham and Sarah provide a Jewish model of what it really means to be hospitable. When Abraham sees three men approaching his tent, he jumps up and runs toward them to greet them. Abraham then bows to the ground and happily offers the strangers water so that they could bathe their feet. He then provides a place in the shade for them to recline. Next Abraham arraigns for the strangers to have cakes made from his best flour, a calf from his herd is prepared and the strangers are given curds and milk.
What’s so striking and inspiring about this story is Abraham’s openhearted, generous, eager hospitality to people who were total strangers. It seems so different than us. With Abraham the strangers who came to him did not have to approach his house and beg. They did not have to say Trick or Treat. Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent—each and everyday just hoping…praying that people would show up to which he could show a measure of kindness.
The Jewish value of Haknasat Orchim—hospitality to guests is one I believe can vastly improve the quality of each and every one of our lives—not to mention those we welcome through our kindness. Through our offers of hospitality to guests, strangers, neighbors, friends and family members we find a new sense of connection, community and belonging.
I think this extends from the person who lives next door to us to the hungry or homeless person who begs us for some change while standing in the cold.
In conclusion while many of us, myself included, will continue to enjoy the fun and excitement of Halloween—Sometimes even go trick or treating, I think we might all consider new and different ways how each of us can contribute to a society where all who come to us in friendship and all who come to us in need are welcomed, respected and taken care of.