What does Halloween have to do with Judaism? In a narrow sense, the answer is, “nothing”. However, when we look at our history as a people and the customs that have been passed down to us through the generations, we find that dark forces (although not central to our faith in any way) were, at one time, a very real aspect of our heritage.
While the Bible strictly forbids demonology and the magic that is associated with it, it is evident that our ancestors were not altogether adverse to such practices.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, we demons are mentioned as Moses berates the gods of the Canaanites, referring to them as demons or false gods. Small references like this indicate that, while the Israelites may not have believed that demons exerted much power, they did not refute the idea that demons existed. In fact, in the ancient near east, beliefs in demons were common.
While demons were not as powerful as gods, the ancients believed that dark forces existed and could influence their lives in very concrete ways. A demon was considered to be a tormenting force that could cause great pain and disruption in the world. Demonic torments were evident in personal discomforts such as headaches, fevers and other ailments. Theologically, the idea that demons existed helped explain why evil existed in the world.
It was not until the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE that Jewish literature begins to concern itself with demons and evil spirits. During this period, under the cultural influences of early Christianity, Jewish demonology begins to evolve. In this literature, some demons take the form of ghosts, spirits of the dead, particularly of people who had died violent deaths. Some demons lived alone in graveyards, while others served the lord of the netherworld. For the people of the ancient near east, including our ancestors, demons were a source of fear and concern. They were not gods to be worshiped, but rather forces to be combated.
The instruments and tools used to ward off these dark forces included incantations, amulets and a wide variety of rituals. We know a lot about these ancient beliefs and practices from archaeological discoveries and research. We also know that there are many customs and practices today that are rooted in ancient superstitions. Crossing one’s fingers as a sign of hope or saying “God bless you” after a sneeze are just a couple of many common customs that have very ancient roots in warding off evil.
So what are we to make of demons and evil spirits as Jews today? Certainly, in the Judaism that we practice today, evil spirits and demons fall completely outside of the realm of acceptable belief. That said, in the realm of literature and Jewish culture – the occult is alive. We find it in stories, plays, art and more. And this is where Halloween comes in.
No one would ever argue that Halloween is a Jewish holiday (nor could one argue that Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day or the Fourth of July are Jewish). They are all American holidays that we choose to celebrate as American Jews.
So tomorrow night, as our children dress up in costume and gather ungodly amounts of candy, enjoy our annual holiday of ghouls and ghosts. We may not believe in demons or evil spirits, but one day a year it sure is fun to pretend!