According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Halloween originated with the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, a day on which the devil was invoked for the various divinations. 'The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day', Britannica says, 'and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins .. and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about.' In the early Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church instituted All Hallow's Eve on October 31 and All Saints Day on November 1 to counteract the occult festival. It did not work. All Hollow's Eve was simply co-opted into the pagan celebration of Samhain. (66)
As was noted by Professor John Hennig, in his classical article on this topic, there is a clear historical relationship between the Celtic concepts of resurrection, Roman Catholic responses to it, and the modern American holiday of Halloween. (67)
Thus, Halloween, unlike Thanksgiving, plainly has in its origins religious beliefs that are foreign to Judaism, and whose beliefs are prohibited to us as Jews.
However, the vast majority of the people in America who currently celebrate Halloween do not do so out of any sense of religious observance or feeling. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find a religion in the United States that recognize Halloween as a religious holiday.
This statement appears to be a truthful recounting of the modern American celebration of Halloween. The vast majority of people who celebrate Halloween have absolutely no religious motives at all -- it is an excuse to collect candy or engage in mischievous behavior.
However, it is worth noting that there are still some people who celebrate Halloween religiously, and there are occasional court cases about employees who seek to take religious leave on Halloween day as a religious holiday. (69)
The question about Halloween is whether Jewish law allows one to celebrate an event that has pagan origins, where the pagan origins are still known and celebrated by a very few, but not by the vast majority of people who engage in this activity.
Tosafot understands that two distinctly different types of customs are forbidden by the prohibition of imitating Gentile customs found in Leviticus 18:3. The first is idolatrous customs and the second is foolish customs found in the Gentile community, even if their origins are not idolatrous. (71)Rabbenu Nissim (Ran) and Maharik disagree and rule that only customs that have a basis in idolatrous practices are prohibited. Apparently foolish -- but secular -- customs are permissible so long as they have a reasonable explanation (and are not immodest). (72) Normative halacha follows the ruling of the Ran and Maharik. As noted by Rama:
Those practices done as a [Gentile] custom or law with no reason one suspects that it in an idolatrous practice or that there is a taint of idolatrous origins; however, those customs which are practiced for a reason, such as the physician who wears a special garment to identify him as a doctor, can be done; the same is true for any custom done out of honor or any other reason is permissible. (73)
Rabbi Isserless is thus clearly prohibiting observing customs that have pagan origins, or even which might have pagan origins. His opinion, the most lenient found in normative halacha, is the one we follow. (74)
Of course, independent of the halachic obligation to avoid Gentile religious customs, Jewish law forbids a Jew from actually celebrating idolatrous religious events himself. (75)
Applying these halachic rules to Halloween leads to the conclusion that participation in Halloween celebrations -- which is what collecting candy is when one is wearing a costume -- is prohibited. Halloween, since it has its origins in a pagan practice, and lacks any overt rationale reason for its celebration other than its pagan origins or the Catholic response to it, is governed by the statement of Rabbi Isserless that such conduct is prohibited as its origins taint it. (76) One should not send one's children out to trick or treat on Halloween, or otherwise celebrate the holiday.
The question of whether one can give out candy to people who come to the door is a different one, as there are significant reasons based on darchai shalom (the ways of peace), eva (the creation of unneeded hatred towards the Jewish people) and other secondary rationales that allow one to distribute candy to people who will be insulted or angry if no candy is given. This is even more so true when the community -- Jewish and Gentile -- are unaware of the halachic problems associated with the conduct, and the common practice even within many Jewish communities is to "celebrate" the holiday. Thus, one may give candy to children who come to one's house to "trick or treat" if one feels that this is necessary.
66. Paul Prather, Halloween is Pagan in Origin, But Life Goes On, Lexington Herald Leader, October 26, 1991, page B1.
Less significantly, this was the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, German, which lead to the beginnings of the Reformation.
67. See John Hennig, The Meaning of All The Saints, Medieval Studies 10:147-161 (1948).
68. Cheryl S. Clark, Halloween Atlanta Constitution, October 22, B1 (1995).
69. See for example, Van-Koten v. Family Health Management Corporation, 955 F.Supp. 898 (N.D. Ill., 1997)
70. See Part II:A.
71. Tosafot Avodah Zara 11a ve'ei. Tosafot, and all of the other authorities discussed in this section are resolving a tension between the talmud here and in Sanhedren 52b.
72. Ran, commenting on Avodah Zarah 11a yisrael and Chidushai HaRan on Sanhedren 52b; Maharik, Responsa 58.
73. Rama YD 178:1.
74. For more on this, see Part II:A-C.
75. Yoreh Deal 147:4-7.
76. Those who are strict for the opinions of either Tosafot or Gra certainly prohibit this activity also.