Shabbat on Halloween: Horror of horrors or wonder of wonders?


With a borscht-curdling geshrei, Halloween this year falls on Shabbat. On a Friday night, trick-or-treaters, even Jewish ones, will be knocking.

Should we open the door? Or should we be spooked about joining the celebration?

After reading that on Oct. 31, Urban Adamah, a Jewish-oriented educational farm and community center in Berkeley, Calif., would be holding a “Challahween Kabbalat Shabbat” — chanting and meditation plus a potluck dinner and Halloween dessert candy bar — I wondered: Should I have a Halloween Shabbat dinner as well?

Yes, I know that when it comes to costumes and treats, Purim is our holiday, and that Halloween has murky pagan and Christian origins. But the multibillion-dollar Halloween costume, decoration and candy industry has morphed so far beyond that I wondered what I could pull from that bubbling commercial cauldron and adopt to season my Shabbat.

Not that I would want to serve brisket with candy corn, but what about trying pumpkin spice challah? I didn’t have to cast a spell to find a recipe online.

But what to wear, especially since I would be greeting the neighborhood children as they came calling. Could I use the opportunity to dress up as someone more shul-ish than ghoulish?

For ideas, I hit a neighborhood costume warehouse, Halloween City, not expecting much in the way of Jewish population. Was I wrong.

Though a Halloween warehouse will never be confused with a Judaica store, I was surprised by the number of items that with a little imagination suggested ways to remember (zachor) Shabbat on Halloween, and even to keep it (shamor).

Searching for something overtly Jewish, I was disappointed at first, only finding costumes more suited to Catholic tastes. One could dress up as a Blessed Mother, priest and friar, but not a rabbi.

On a nearby rack, though, when I found a Doctor Who costume — a red fez and bow tie — I knew I was in the right place to make a fanciful connection to Shabbat. How on earth? Since according to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “the meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space,” who would be better to have at my Halloween Shabbat dinner than a Time Lord?

Searching further in the area with costumes representing ethnic stereotypes,  I found that one could dress up as a “Big Shot Scott,” a “Mystifying Gypsy” and a “Luscious Leprechaun” complete with a “Want to get lucky?” pot of gold.

The “Tequila Poppin Dude” costume  came with two shoulder bandoliers with shot glass holding loops. Improvising, I figured on Shabbat I could put on the bandoliers and a kippah and be a poppin’ dude, too, only with Manischewitz.

On an end rack I saw some Shabbat potential, at least thematically in costumes based on the short, yellow, one- and two-eyed characters in the movie “Despicable Me.” There in clear packages were a “Minion Dave” costume complete with blue coveralls and goggles, as well as a “Female Minion” costume.

Ahhh, I could have a “minyan” at my Shabbat Halloween dinner — it would even be egalitarian.

Walking past the display of plug-in, animated skeleton fiddlers (from a Sholem Aleichem nightmare?), I found myself in the aisle of ancient get-ups. If I wanted to turn my Shabbat dinner into a toga party or night of Roman-themed excess I was all set. But didn’t we fight a few wars to get away from all that?

On the top of the rack, however, I found a blue and gold Egyptian pharaoh’s headdress.

“That will work,” I thought, trying it on, remembering that in the Shabbat Kiddush are the words “zecher litzeat mitzrayim,” “recall the Exodus from Egypt.”

Walking by an entire area of black and gray fake headstones (there were no Styrofoam pebbles to leave on them), I came to an area that seemed more heavenly.

In recent years, angel wings have become a Halloween costume staple, and the warehouse had an entire display in every shape and color. To begin every Shabbat, my family always sings “Shalom Aleichem,” wishing peace to the “attending angels.” Would they be offended, if in their honor, I wore a pair of wings to dinner?

In the next aisle over I found myself amid costumes for girls and women. Was there something here that would invoke the image of Shabbat Hamalka, the Sabbath Queen, who we greet with song on Shabbat evening?

There were costumes for a woodland fairy, a gothic temptress and a “divine goddess” that included a blonde wig and hair jewelry, but nothing close to what I imagined to be the Sabbath Queen.

Then I realized: With a Sabbath Queen, angels who visit on our day of rest and celebrations of time rather than space, we didn’t really need any help from Halloween to conceptualize the fantastic.

On Halloween, I could set the table with orange plates on a black tablecloth and wear a pharaoh’s headdress. But on that Shabbat evening, as we rise before dinner to face the door and sing the last verse of Lecha Dodi, “Come my beloved,” even if the doorbell rings, do we really need all that stuff to imagine who might appear at our threshold?

My last Halloween


These days it creeps up on me like an ache — the occasional pumpkin in a front yard, the synthetic cobwebs in trees, the subtle turn in the weather and, yes, there’s that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the hollowness of those dreams in which you’re lost in a white tunnel, with nowhere to go but forward, though you know that every step will take you farther away from home. 

I know why Lot’s wife looked back. 

From early September, the discussions begin. What am I going to be this year, and when are you doing to decorate the house, and do we have enough candy for the trick-or-treaters, and why don’t you dress up as well — my friend’s mom wears a costume every year and my teacher painted her feet green. Throughout October, negotiations revolve around which stores we’re going to shop at and how many trips we’re going to make and how many hours in total we’ll spend looking for “the same as last year, but different.” My older son is a ninja redux, the younger one wants to dress up as a cowboy, even when it’s not Halloween. My daughter, who likes fine clothes and red lipstick, has been a ballerina three years in a row and wants to be a ballerina again, “only not the same kind of ballerina,” she says, and the boys join in the chorus, “and not a ballerina that has to wear a sweater if it’s cold.” Ninjas and cowboys, needless to say, don’t wear sweaters either. 

Our neighbors are mostly young families with small children. The house directly across from ours is one of those haunted mansions that spits out fog and echoes of laughter, with the shadows of headless corpses popping out of open coffins every 60 seconds. The owners have the whole decorating thing down to an art, so they don’t have to start until the weekend before the big day, but the rest of us, bumbling pumpkin carvers and clumsy spider-web spinners, get to work in mid-October and are still “perfecting” the set at 5 o’clock on the 31st, when the first few kids with their parents appear at the door. By then, my little cowboy has been dressed and ready for a couple of hours already, and has posted himself, basket of candy in hand, in the foyer. The ballerina is waiting upstairs for her cousin, Cleopatra, to arrive for hair and makeup, and the ninja is setting boundaries for me as to how much of the evening’s spoils I’m allowed to take in the name of tooth decay. 

So much of my remembrances of motherhood is traced with guilt — at the mistakes I made thinking I was doing the right thing, the chances I missed because I was focused on the wrong thing, my impatience and arrogance and just plain ignorance. So much of it, too, is condensed into a cluster of midnight feedings and birthday parties, school trips and beach outings and, “Alex, stop working and go to bed”; “Kevin do your homework and go to bed,” seven nights a week. Amid it all, those early Halloween memories sparkle — bright, fleeting, untainted, brimming with anticipation, rife with possibility. 

When did I last put my children to bed with the makeup still on their faces and the candy tucked under their beds? Close the door behind the last trick-or-treater? See the back of that young woman with the long, pale hair and giant angel’s wings? The zombie impaled with a sword and still walking? 

The next morning, the street is strangely quiet. The cobwebs have been cleared from the trees, and the doorbells no longer howl. The haunted mansion has been sold to a less theatrical family, and the basket full of candy remains, untouched, by the front door. The kids have grown up and left home. Oct. 31 is just another day on the calendar.  

It’s not that I have nothing else to do with my time, now that the obligatory visits to the pumpkin patch have stopped. It’s not that I have no identity outside of being a mother. On any given day. I’m a good few months behind on a whole lot of work-related projects, my domestic talents still waiting to be discovered. I can attend to neglected friendships and an ailing social life, spend more time with my parents, travel again with only my husband to places that are not necessarily child-friendly. But even with all that, I feel like a typewriter in the age of Siri: still operational, but functionally obsolete. 

I think that’s why Lot’s wife looked back: to see her daughters one last time and, through them, the part of herself she most liked. 

I do have other things to do with my time, yes. I just can’t think of anything better to do on those October mornings when I drive by the little preschool on my way to the gym and see tall those little fairies and wizards march, single file and effervescent with joy and pixie dust, before their adoring, admiring parents.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.