Tag Archives: Purim

Should Jews Celebrate Halloween?

On Monday evening, people across the Western world will be celebrating Halloween. Today, it has become common in some places for Jews to partake in these festivities along with their non-Jewish neighbours. Might this be permissible? What are the origins of Halloween and should Jews participate in the holiday?

At first glance, the origins of Halloween appear to be Christian. The Christian “All Saints’ Day”, or “All Hallows’ Day” (hallow meaning “holy”) is commemorated on November 1st. In olden days it was customary for Christians to stay up the night before a holiday and hold a vigil, and the same was done for All Saints’ Day, hence All Saints’ Eve or All Hallows’ Eve, a name that eventually condensed into Hallowe’en, or simply Halloween. On this night, Christians would pray for the souls of the dead, and ring church bells for those in purgatory, as well as to remind the living about their ultimate fate. Some developed a custom to hand out “soul cakes” to commemorate the dead. It is believed that trick-or-treating came out of children and poor people going door-to-door to get soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the dead.

An antique Irish jack-o-lantern made from a carved out turnip.

However, as with many things Christian, the actual origins of Halloween date back to pagan practices. Like Christmas and Easter—which were instituted in place of earlier pagan festivals marking the winter solstice and spring fertility rituals—Halloween came in place of the earlier Celtic and Gaelic pagan holiday of Samhain. Samhain was celebrated on October 31st to mark the end of the harvest season and the start of the cold, dark, lifeless winter. It was believed that ghosts, fairies, and evil spirits emerged and would be more active through the difficult winter. Jack-o-lanterns were made (from pumpkins, turnips, and others) to ward off these evil spirits, and dressing up in ghastly costumes was thought to scare them away, too.

Meanwhile, people would leave offerings for the wicked spirits to appease them, as well as food and drink for the souls of their own deceased ancestors who were thought to return to Earth one night a year. This is the true origin of trick-or-treating! In some places, it was thought that the dead actually arose from their graves in the cemeteries to have a party, so a “danse macabre” re-enactment was performed, with people dressing up like the dead and going to dance and feast.

The Witch’s “Wheel of the Year”

Not surprisingly, Halloween was always an especially important day on the calendar for those practicing witchcraft and sorcery. Today, “neopagans” and Wiccans still consider Halloween one of their four major festivals (what they call a “Greater Sabbat”, unfortunately misappropriating our holy Shabbat). In short, Halloween is entirely a holiday of the Sitra Achra, a term for the realm of impurity and evil in Jewish mysticism.

With all of this in mind, there is no doubt at all that Jews should not participate in Halloween festivities. The Torah warns very strictly not to engage in any form of idolatry whatsoever, and something like 46 of the 613 commandments deal with various prohibitions related to idolatry and pagan practices.  Jewish law forbids even dabbling in darkei Emori, referring to various other practices of pagans, even if they are not directly idolatrous (as the Torah states in Leviticus 18:3: “Do not walk in their ways…”) In fact, even Protestant Christians used to oppose Halloween, and the Puritans much more vehemently. Halloween was actually not celebrated at all in the Americas at first. It was only with the infux of Irish and Scottish immigrants to America in the 1800s that the holiday started to become popular.

Some will argue that Halloween no longer has any religious connotations, and is simply a secular holiday and a fun time for the kids. This is false for several reasons. First, Halloween is quite clearly all about highlighting the dead, evil spirits, ghosts, demons, and the like, which is fundamentally a religious notion. Second, regardless of how they may be viewed today, the practices of Halloween are deeply rooted in pagan rituals, and there are those who do indeed still celebrate Halloween as a genuine pagan religious festival.

More significantly, Halloween teaches children nothing positive. Young minds are instructed to go out and request candy from strangers (while every other day of the year being cautioned not to take candy from strangers!) Some learn that it is okay to commit mischief. Aside from that, Halloween decorations tend to be disturbing and frightening, and stimulate no beneficial or constructive emotions in anyone. (Worse still, wicked people have used Halloween as an opportunity to abduct children, to poison treats, even to stick pins and needles into candies, among all the other horrible things that have been done on Halloween over the years.)

In stark contrast to Halloween, Judaism has Purim, a festival of “light, happiness, joy, and honour” (Esther 8:16). A holiday to celebrate life and people uniting for a good cause. Instead of begging for candy, children are taught to go out and deliver mishloach manot treats to others. Instead of hooliganism, children are taught to give matnot l’evyonim, charity to the poor. Instead of dressing up as evil spirits, demons, and grotesque beings, children dress up as regal heroes, prophets, prophetesses, and holy patriarchs and matriarchs—and if not these then at least a dignified, modest costume. If you like Halloween, simply switch to Purim!

To conclude, there is little of value in Halloween, a holiday all about death and mischief, eating junk food, frightening other people, and glorifying horror and violence. The decorations are disturbing, the blood sugar levels troubling, and the message entirely ungodly. The spiritual risk in engaging in something so deeply pagan—when God warns so sternly to avoid anything even remotely hinting of paganism or idolatry—is far too great. Thus, not only should Jews not celebrate Halloween in any way, they should encourage each of their friends and neighbours to abolish this unhealthy and unholy satanic death ritual once and for all.

A Mystical Peek Into Megillat Esther

Purim is a deeply mystical holiday. In fact, Megillat Esther literally means “revealing the hidden”. While God is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Scroll, His fingerprints can be found all over it. In the same way, the Megillah is imbued with tremendous hidden wisdom. That it has a total of 10 chapters is the first clue, and if you read carefully, you will find that just about every Sefirah is mentioned!

The first Sefirah is Keter, the great “Crown” of God, and the first chapter of the Megillah is all about highlighting the greatness of Achashverosh’s crown and kingdom. Our Sages taught that Achashverosh wished to dress in the vestments of the kohen gadol, to “crown” himself as a king of the Jews (Megillah 12a). As is well-known, it was also taught that every time the Megillah refers to “the king” without a name, it is secretly referring to the King, to God. In Kabbalah, Keter always refers to Willpower (Ratzon), since the starting point of any endeavour is the will to do it. Everything begins with a will, and the universe began with God’s Will to create it, setting all of history in motion. Similarly, in the first chapter of the Megillah we find that Queen Vashti refuses to do the will of Achashverosh, thus setting the whole Purim story in motion.

The second Sefirah is Chokhmah, and the second chapter begins by introducing us to Mordechai, the paragon of a chakham, a Jewish sage. In Kabbalah, Chokhmah is also called Abba, the “father”, and we are told that Mordechai plays the role of an adopted father for the orphaned Esther. The third Sefirah is Binah, and the third chapter begins by introducing Haman, a master manipulator who knew how to twist people’s binah, “understanding”. Our Sages asked (Chullin 139b): where is Haman alluded to in the Torah? They answered that he is found in the words hamin ha’etz, “from the Tree”, referring to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:11) Our Sages associate Haman with the Tree of Knowledge, the consumption of which brought evil into the world. According to one Kabbalistic view, the Tree of Life is associated with Chokhmah, while the Tree of Knowledge is associated with Binah, hence the mystical connection to Haman. It goes deeper. Continue reading

The Secret, Secret Story of Stalin’s Purim Death

Josef Stalin in 1920

 – לעילוי נשמת אמנון בן אסתר –

On the night of March 1st, 1953, when Jews around the world had just finished celebrating Purim, attendants of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin found him laying semi-conscious on the floor of his bedroom. He was sick and hemorrhaging blood for the next several days until finally dying on the 5th of March. His death was announced to the public the following day. While most Jews around the world were probably jubilant at the news, little could they know of the incredible events—both political and spiritual—which were transpiring in the fateful days before.

A couple of months earlier, on the 9th of January, state-owned mouthpiece Pravda published a propaganda article about a “Doctor’s Plot” to secretly poison top Soviet leaders, including Stalin. Six of the named doctors were Jewish, and the others were supposedly Jewish-Zionist sympathizers, working together with American spies to destroy the Soviet Union. The article said:

The majority of the participants of the terrorist group… recruited by a branch-office of American intelligence, the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization called “Joint”. The filthy face of this Zionist spy organization, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of charity, is now completely revealed…

Not surprisingly, a huge wave of anti-Semitism spread across the Soviet Union. Stalin used this as a pretext to order the construction of four new concentration camps in Kazakhstan and Siberia, arguing that he will gather Soviet Jews there, “for their own protection”, to save them from angry Russian mobs.* Stalin’s real intent was to finish what Hitler had started. Records suggest that the deportations were set to begin on March 6th, 1953—ironically, the same day his death was announced. After his death, Stalin’s successors quickly absolved the doctors of any wrongdoing and buried the Doctors’ Plot for good. Stalin’s impending holocaust was scrapped. Millions of Jews across the Soviet Union (my family included), were saved—a Purim miracle. But there is much, much more to the story.

My grandfathers, David Palvanov (1915-1985), left, and Anton Amnon Mirzayev (1923-1981, whose 40th yahrzeit is this Sunday, the 9th of Adar), Red Army veterans of World War II, who served with distinction in both the European and Pacific Theatres.

The Rebbe’s Farbrengen

Back in New York City, on March 1st, 1953, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was starting a motzei-Purim farbrengen. In his discourse, the Rebbe recounted how when the czar was deposed in 1917, the Rebbe Rashab (Sholom Dov Ber, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1860-1920) urged his followers to go vote. After voting, one simple Hasid saw some Russians shouting hoora! and joined in as well, thinking they meant hu-ra (הוא רע), “he is evil!”—happy that the evil, anti-Semitic czars that had caused the Jews so much anguish were finally gone. Bizarrely, the Rebbe (the seventh one, that is) started to shout hu-ra, too, and repeated the same story three separate times, each concluding with more hu-ra’s. No one in the room understood what was going on. They assumed the Rebbe had done a spiritual rectification of some sort.

A farbrengen with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the early 1950s

Nothing more was said of the Rebbe’s strange actions until March 6th, when Stalin’s death was announced. Turns out, at the same time that the Rebbe was making his hu-ra’s—while recounting the fall of an old anti-Semitic Russian dictator—the contemporary anti-Semitic Russian dictator, Stalin, had collapsed in his room and was writhing in pain. It was only then that the Hasidim that were with the Rebbe on the night of March 1st began to piece together what had happened. Did the Rebbe put an end to Stalin? Well, not directly; the Rebbe was no assassin! (Not even a spiritual one.) So, what was really going on that night of March 1st?

Stalin’s Purim Feast

While Jews around the world were enjoying their Purim feast, Stalin was getting together for a feast of his own back in Russia. As recounted in Stalin’s Last Crime (written by Russian historian Vladimir Naumov and Yale professor Jonathan Brent), in his last dinner Stalin was accompanied by secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, Georgi Malenkov, Nikita Khrushchev (his soon-to-be successor) and Nikolai Bulganin. Later that night, Stalin had mysteriously collapsed in his room. Yet, no doctor was called in to treat him until the following day. Some believe that Stalin’s friends had gotten him drunk, and then Lavrentiy Beria slipped Stalin a poison. High-ranking Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986, of “Molotov cocktail” fame) would recall in his memoirs that Beria boasted about how he managed to terminate Stalin: “I did him in! I saved all of you!” Others state that Stalin was not much of a drinker, and was unlikely to let himself get drunk. It is more likely that his treatment was purposely delayed until it was too late. Whatever the case, the evidence is very strong that Stalin’s own inner circle killed him. Why?

For Stalin, the Doctor’s Plot was only the start of something much bigger. As we saw from the Pravda article above, Stalin had tied the doctors to American agents in Moscow. His plans were to accuse the US of plotting to nuke Moscow, and he supposedly had proof from a spy captured and interrogated in 1951. Stalin was gearing up to spark World War III (and possibly drawing up plans for an attack on American soil). His inner circle knew that he had absolutely lost it. And Stalin knew that they did not support him anymore, so he planned another purge of the Communist Party to eliminate dissenters. This was confirmed in the 1956 “Secret Speech” given by Khrushchev, who said:

It is not excluded that had Stalin remained at the helm for another several months, Comrades Molotov and Mikoyan would probably have not delivered any speeches at this congress. Stalin evidently had plans to finish off the old members of the political bureau. He often stated that political bureau members should be replaced by new ones… We can assume that this was also a design for the future annihilation of the old political bureau members and in this way a cover for all shameful acts of Stalin, acts which we are now considering.

This is why Beria had boasted that he had saved his comrades. Khrushchev and the others were in on it. They got rid of Stalin just in time to avoid another Jewish holocaust, to save their own skin, and to prevent World War III. What they did was incredibly risky, and no doubt needed help from Above. The Rebbe must have sensed something going on in the Heavens, and perhaps really did play some spiritual role in the plan’s success.

Indeed, it was a great miracle that the plan succeeded. That it happened on Purim specifically is certainly no coincidence.** After all, Purim is all about how the Jews avoided a holocaust in the nick of time: “…on the very day when the enemies of the Jews sought to dominate them, v’nahafokh hu”—everything was turned upside down and the Jews were saved instead. On the very day Stalin planned to start deporting Jews, his death was announced instead.

And Purim is about the defeat of Amalek which, like Communism, is that atheistic force in the universe seeking to undermine Godliness at every opportunity. The Communists tried so hard to expunge religion that they even attempted to change their calendar to a five-day week so that there could be no commemoration of the Sabbath! Thankfully, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, right at the moment when the Messianic Age was set to begin according to ancient prophecy (as explained here). However, Communism is not quite dead, and the forces of Amalek continue to rear their ugly heads around the world today. And so, we continue to read Parashat Zachor each year before Purim, as we will this Shabbat, to remind ourselves that there is yet work to be done until we can celebrate Amalek’s final defeat. May we merit to see it soon.


*According to Stalin’s Last Crime (pg. 294-295), the concentration camps were ordered to house foreign criminals captured in World War II, particularly Germans and Austrians. However, there were no more than 5000 such prisoners in the USSR, so why the need for so many large camps? Besides, the war had ended long ago—why the sudden need for new camps? The real reason was surely tied to the Doctor’s Plot and/or a new impending war.

**In Stalin’s Last Crime, Naumov and Brent point out that one of the hidden heroes in the story was Sophia Karpai. She was one of the Jewish doctors that was accused, then arrested, tortured, and kept in a refrigerated cell. Despite this, Karpai refused to “confess” and maintained the innocence of the Jews. By this point, most of the other doctors had already “confessed” under extreme torture. Karpai held out on her own, which frustrated Stalin and the authorities. They couldn’t have even a single doctor claim innocence, for that would ruin the entire conspiracy. Naumov and Brent write that “It satisfies the imagination to think that the fate of the Jews of Russia might have depended on this latter day, unknown Esther.” (Pg. 307)