I once asked a prominent Brooklyn rabbi* what the halakhah is regarding Halloween and he surprised me with a leniency. My assumption was that since the holiday’s origins are pagan, any connection to the holiday, even giving out candy, should be forbidden (see here: link). He replied, however, that the connection to paganism is remote and long forgotten. It has lost its original meaning and is now a holiday about silliness. It still isn’t a wholesome holiday for Jews but, according to this rabbi, it isn’t tainted with paganism and its attendant stringencies either.
There is an early medieval custom to swing a chicken over one’s head on the eve of Yom Kippur and declare that the chicken should be punished in one’s stead. This practice of Kaparos was opposed by many scholars, including the Rashba, Ramban and the author of the Shulchan Arukh (see Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 605 – link), because it seems to be based on a pagan practice (see the entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia: link). Despite this, the majority of authorities, particularly among Ashkenazim, have permitted the practice of Kaparos and Jews continue to practice it today. But how could these authorities allow a seemingly pagan practice?
R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (Darkei Ha-Hora’ah part 1 ch. 6 in Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chajes, vol. 1 pp. 236-237 – link) offers two reasons which, when combined, explain the continuation of the practice. The first is that the Jewish masses are not careful in distinguishing between practices. They do not recognize what is biblical and what is rabbinic or what is an important custom and what is minor. If a practice they’ve performed their entire lives is abolished, they will mistakenly think that anything can be abolished. They will not realize the exceptional nature of this practice.
Additionally, and most importantly, is the Halloween comparison. Like those of the contemporary American holiday, the pagan origins of Kaparos are entirely obscure. The practice has changed into a Jewish custom and has long lost any external meaning. People observe it solely for mitzvah purposes. Therefore, explains the Maharatz Chajes, the socio-religious damage of abolishing a popular practice overrides the need to stop a custom that has lost all pagan meaning.
* While I don’t think there is anything wrong with the standard practice of quoting rabbinic rulings one heard from famous rabbis, I generally do not reveal on this blog the names of rabbis who speak to me privately so that they will continue to speak freely around me.