Columns - 2015

    Trick or Torah

    It was a different time. It wasn't a different world, but it would seem like it today.

    It was a different history, recounted in a different Mishnah tractate.

    From the shadows of Bava Metziah, Bava Batra, and Bava Kamma, emerges the recently discovered tractate Bava Gump. From Bava Gump emerges a tale that could be told around campfires, under a full moon... but only before the Shema of the morning prayers.

    Halloween dates back over two thousand years. The ancient Celtics, just before Larry Bird started to play, celebrated their new year at the start of November -- a compromise between Rosh Hashanah and the secular new year so popular today. They believed the night before was inhabited by ghosts, some of which would cause mischief.

    Two thousand years later, the day has (d)evolved into candy-giving, costuming, and great pumpkining. But the dilemma for Jews has been a constant: What to do on this Hallow's Eve? Especially when it coincides with Shabbat.

    Bava Gump relates an ancient practice. Rabbi Telfon, the Great Communicator, referred to the coincidence of Shabbat and Halloween as Shabbat Shiver -- both for the ghostly nature of the day, and for the changing weather.

    To be clear, Shabbat Shiver entailed going out on Saturday night, after Shabbat. This avoided any conflict with the Shabbatic limitations of Friday night, or Erev Hallow's Eve.

    Rabbi Telfon was not interested in delving into what Judaism says about the existence of ghosts. He decided to establish a practice that was a teaching moment: one with little risk of tooth decay.

    Trick or Torah entailed Jewish children going from abode to abode, asking the occupants for a teaching of Torah. It had to be one they hadn't heard yet that evening, or they would perform a trick against them.

    Obviously, the first people visited had an easier time because they didn't risk providing Torah teachings that others had already said. So, what began as a simple, enjoyable exercise became a point of social contention, and ultimately, legislation.

    Different communities followed various criteria, but most followed one of two practices. One was to have the starting point among the homes change every year, so the easier task was rotated among the community. The other approach entailed a complicated layout each year of which families would start at which houses, so that equity was maintained in terms of the overall average level of ease for everyone involved.

    Despite these obstacles, Trick or Torah continued each year. Children still learned, but it gradually became another required thing to do instead of a fun way to learn. Dressing up as favorite biblical characters reinvigorated the entertainment for a while.

    How did candy enter the picture on this night? At first, it would seem to be yet another Twentieth-Century secularization. However, it goes back much further. During Trick or Torah, some people could not provide the children with a new Torah teaching that they hadn't already heard. To avoid a trick being pulled on them, they would bribe the children with sweet foods.

    Upon learning of this illicit practice, Rabbi Telfon decreed an end to Trick or Torah. However, instead of ending the illicit giving of sweets, it was all that remained. Children had grown to expect sweets in exchange for not doing tricks, so they continued to receive them. In the end, only the original point of Trick or Torah -- actually learning some Torah -- was eliminated.

    Why does nobody today know about Trick or Torah? The rabbis felt that it set a bad example, one that shows future generations a path toward the frivolous trappings and away from the fundamental point of traditions and education.

    But the scholars behind Bava Gump were radicals in their time. They felt this was important as a cautionary tale, one that was critical to pass down through the ages. Ultimately, those who compiled the Mishnah left it out, believing that -- like they felt about Bava Gump as a whole -- it was better cannon fodder than canon fodder.

    Doug Brook is a writer in Silicon Valley who never lets a Halloween go by without playing his future hit song, The Monster Mensch. For past columns, other writings, and more, visit For exclusive online content, follow

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