by Rabbi Ari Enkin
There has evolved a collection of legends and folklore over the centuries concerning Christmas Eve, referred to as "Nittel Nacht" in rabbinical parlance, and its place within Jewish thought and practice. There are a number of customs associated with Nittel Nacht which can be found in a number of communities, mostly Chassidic ones, the most common of which being to refrain from Torah study on Christmas Eve.
Before we delve into the history and roots for Nittel Nacht, it is vital for readers, both Jewish and Gentile, to realize that the issues discussed below were born out of political realities rather than theological ones. Nittel Nacht comes to us from an era when relations between Jews and Christians, the Church and Judaism, could be described as 'tense' at best. We are fortunate to be living in a day and age where relations between these two groups have flourished immensely in both the Catholic and Protestant denominations. As such, it is conceivable that such ideas may have never even been thought of had circumstances been different. To paraphrase the Chazon Ish, the customs of Nittel Nacht do not apply in a place (i.e. Israel and presumably others) where there is no reason to fear the Christians.
Click here to read moreTo begin with, there are a number of theories as to where the term "Nittel", or "Nittel Nacht" originate from. Some suggest that it comes from the Latin "Natale Dominus", meaning, "The birth of our God". Others surmise that the use of the word Nittel etymologically comes from the Hebrew "natal", meaning "to have been hanged". Nittel can also be construed as the Hebrew word for "being taken away". These latter interpretations of the word Nittel would seem to support an obscure theory that Jesus was actually killed on Christmas. Alternatively, it may simply be a derogatory nickname that was used to refer to Jesus in all circumstances. The more likely meaning of the term Nittel is that of an acronym for "Nolad Yeshu Tet L'tevet", meaning, "Jesus was born on the ninth of Tevet."
As mentioned above, the most prominent custom commonly observed on Nittel Nacht is to abstain from Torah study, and there are a number of reasons offered for this. One explanation offered is that refraining from Torah study is intended to serve as a sign of mourning. Mourners, including all Jews on Tisha B'av, are forbidden from studying Torah, as it is an activity which makes one happy. The "mourning" in this context would be over the rivers of Jewish blood that have been spilled throughout the ages, all perpetrated in the name of Jesus. Some Chassidic Rebbes went so far as to even refrain from sleep on Christmas Eve lest they dream about Torah! The Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch was once "caught" learning Torah on Nittel Nacht but quickly repented. Chassidic legend relates that wild dogs would visit those who "violated" the custom and studied Torah on Nittel Nacht.
The most predominant and logical of explanations for the origin of Nittel Nacht customs, namely, the abandonment of Torah study and the closure of batei midrash on Christmas Eve was in fear of possible pogroms. It was common in the Middle-Ages for the Christians to unleash pogroms in honor of their holidays. By forbidding Torah study there was essentially no reason for anyone to leave their homes on Christmas Eve. It appears therefore that the entire Nittel Nacht enactment was simply a decree to save Jews from being beaten or killed. Furthermore, Torah study at home was also not an option as it was quite rare for individuals to own their own books in those years. There were even some regions where the Jewish community was told to turn out their lights on Christmas Eve for their own safety. Some suggest that with Chanukah in close proximity to Christmas, the dreidel was a game invented in order to pass the time while sitting in one's home waiting out any fear of pogroms. It is pointed out that the gematria of Nittel is the same as Chanuka alluding that proper observance of Chanuka can override the concerns of Nittel.
A mystical perspective to the prohibition on studying Torah on Nittel Night has it that by studying Torah one is contributing positive spiritual powers to the world. It was believed inappropriate to make such contributions on a night of widespread idolatry, pogroms, and inappropriate merriment. There was also the concern that one's Torah study may go on to unwillingly serve as a merit for Jesus' soul, which was also undesired. This latter idea corresponds to the teaching that Torah study and prayer are said to give respite to the souls of all the wicked. Other sources simply state that Nittel Nacht is a night where impurities reign supreme and therefore Torah study, the most sacred of activities, would not be appropriate.
Even the custom to refrain from Torah study on this night is in itself subject to a number of different variables. Some communities maintain that one is only to abstain from Torah study until midnight, while others did so until the next morning. In other communities the custom was to go to sleep in the early evening and then wake up for a Torah study session after midnight. This latter custom was the result of the belief that it would reflect badly in Heaven for Jews to sleep soundly throughout the night while the Gentiles were up in their places of worship praying to God.
We find a variety of opinions as well regarding when on Christmas Eve the customs of Nittel Nacht are to begin. Some sources indicate that the practices of Nittel Nacht are to commence at midday, while others contend that one need only begin observing them at sunset, or even nightfall. There was also a custom to refrain from marital relations on Nittel Nacht. Indeed, it said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov that conception on Nittel Nacht will breed an apostate. It is reported that the attempted seduction of Joseph by Mrs. Potiphar occurred on Nittel Nacht.
When exactly is the "halachic" Christmas Eve is actually subject to dispute as well. Some authorities recommend that the eve of December 25, as is Christmas in most of the Western World, is to be observed as Nittel Nacht, referred to as "Nittel Hakatan". Others suggest of course that the true Nittel Nacht is to correspond to the January 7 celebrations, the Christmas of the Greek Orthodox, referred to as "Nittel Hagadol". Common custom among most Nittel Nacht observers is to observe Nittel Nacht in accordance with the majority Christian community where one lives.
It is interesting to note that the regions where the entire subject of Nittel Nacht was first developed, there was no such thing as Christmas on December 25. As such, Chassidim in those places always observed Nittel Nacht on January 6-7. Some point out that the "tekufa" of Tevet which falls out on January 6 serves as an eerie connection between the superstitions associated with the night of the tekufa and Christmas Eve. As readers may have already guessed, there are indeed some communities that are "machmir" to observe Nittel Nacht on both Christmas' regardless of where they live.
There is a view that when Nittel Nacht falls out on Shabbat one need not concern oneself with any of the Nittel Nacht customs owing to the holiness of the day, though others disagree. So too, there is a view that the Nittel Nacht customs were never established to be observed in the Land of Israel as Christianity had never been a dominant force there. It is also argued that the holiness of the Land of Israel overcomes any of the mystical concerns surrounding Christmas, especially those related to superstition and impurity. Some modern day authorities have suggested that since the influence and even observance of Christianity has declined in the modern world, one need no longer be so particular regarding the Nittel Nacht customs at all.
There was an ancient peculiar custom to fast on the ninth of Tevet with a lack of literature explain just why that was so. Some have contended that it was intended to be a fast as a token of mourning for the tremendous amount of Jewish blood spilled in the name of Jesus, appropriately chosen for the day he was born. The existence of this custom lends credence to the view that December 25th in the year that Jesus was born was indeed the ninth of Tevet.
Historically, Torah scholars would use the night to play cards, a practice frowned upon by many halachic authorities. Some, including great rabbis, were known to play chess on Nittel Nacht. Others humorously relate of a widespread custom to spend the night tearing toilet paper for Shabbat use throughout the year. In some communities people would gather together to read the "Toledot Yeshu" every year on Christmas Eve. Other recommended activities for the evening include spending the night managing one's finances, reading secular works , working on communal projects, learning a new language, or sewing. The prayer "Aleinu L'shabeiach" should be said out loud on Nittel Nacht as it is credited for sparing one from the forces of evil which are said to be dominant on that night. It is also noted that there was a prominent custom to eat garlic on Nittel Nacht. The reason for this is attributed to the odor of garlic which was said to ward off demons, and by extension, Jesus' soul which is prevalent and possibly wandering on this night.
Make no mistake; most communities in the non-Chassidic world never accepted any of these Nittel Nacht customs. Indeed, there continue to be eminent authorities who strongly oppose the Nittel Nacht phenomenon calling it a needless waste of precious Torah study time, though Chassidim quickly answer back that the observance of a custom is "Torah" in its own right. Sefardim also have no tradition of observing Nittel Nacht, as there was no fear of Christian pogroms in the Islamic countries they lived in. It seems that the emphasis on Nittel Nacht customs is no older than the 18th century, further evidence that it was the invention of the Chassidim. It is interesting to note that some have suggested that the customs of Nittel Nacht are indeed without any known or logical reason and should be followed "just because".
As mentioned above, it appears that the entire subject of Nittel Nacht was created out of a political climate rather than a halachic one. Further evidence for this can be suggested by the observation that in other lands where Jews have lived throughout the ages where other religions were dominant, including idolatrous ones, no such comparable customs ever aroused on the eve of their major holidays. With Christian-Jewish relations at their most comfortable levels ever, let us hope that we are one step closer to the day that when all religions will worship in the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, as the prophet teaches: "I will bring [all nations] to my holy mountain and I will make them happy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar for My House will be called a House of Prayer for all nations."
1. Regel Yeshara, 10, cited in Minhag Yisrael Torah O.C. 155:15. In an attempt to reconcile these views, there is the suggestion that there may have been [at least] two Jesus' - one a student of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Prachia and the other a student of Rabban Gamliel. Yet there is another view that the Jesus of the Talmud is not the Jesus of the Christians at all. See Rabbi Gil Student: http://talmud.faithweb.com/
2. Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Nittel footnote 5:1
3. Igrot Kodesh 7:23 cited in Shut Reiach Hasade 1:17
4. Bnei Yissaschar, Regel Yeshara, 10
5. Taamei Haminhagim 500, Minhag Yisrael Torah O.C. 155:15
6. See the Shem Mishmuel Vol 2 p.75 for more on the connection between Jesus and Chanuka
7. Emunat Itecha (Rabbi Moshe Wolfson) Miketz; heard from Rabbi Faivel Smiles. (The Gematriatic connection is a major strech. A.E.)
8. Sefer Haminhagim Chabad, Hayom Yom p.12
9. There is an ongoing debate among the rabbis whether or not Christianity, and by extension, the Trinity is to be deemed an idolatrous belief. The normative view seems to be that modern-day Christianity is not idolatry, though this can vary between denominations.
10. Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Nittel footnote 5:4
11. Ibid. 2:4
12. Ibid. 4:11, as advised by the Chatam Sofer
13. Ibid. 5:1. See there for a custom for woman to refrain from going to the mikva on Nittel Nacht.
14. Sefer Baal Shem Tov Vol. 2:43a
15. Bereishit 39:7
16. Emunat Itecha;Miketz. Joseph could not study Torah that night, hence he went to do "his work" (v.11)
17. Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Nittel 2:2,3
19. Minhag Yisrael Torah O.C. 155:15
20. Mishmeret Shalom 27:3
21. Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Nittel 6:1
22. Ibid. 3:1
23. Teshuvot V'hanhagot 1:551
24. O.C. 580:1-2;Taz 1
25. Megilla Taanit (Vilna Edition)
26. Biur Halacha 670:2
27. The practice of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Nittel 4:10
28. The practice of the Chiddushei Harim, cited in Reiach Hasade 1:17
30. On Nittel Nacht the Maharsha would review his accounts and determine how much maaser money he had to distribute each year. One Nittel Nacht someone went and "reported" the Maharsha to the police that in hatred of the Christians the Maharsha wouldn't didn't study Torah on Nittel Nacht. The police decided to investigate this complaint. That night, as the Maharsha was sitting and reviewing his accounts, a sefer fell from his bookshelf. The Maharsha picked it up and opened it. As the Maharsha was reading the sefer the police burst into his home and began their "investigation." Needless to say, there was now no case against him. See Sefer Tochachat Mussar, in the introduction.
31. Especially Josephus and geography. Devar Chana Hashalem 2:43, cited in Shut Reiach Hasade 1:17
32. In the name of the Arugot Habosem
33. In the name of the Imrei Emes
34. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chanuka 5750
35. Taamei Haminhagim 500
36. See Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Nittel 5:5 for another reason
37. A response attributed to Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschitz in his conversation with a priest over the matter. Minhag Yisrael Torah 155:15. See also Arugot Habosem to Shemot 5:1
38. Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Nittel 3:2, Yabia Omer 7:22
39. It is important to mention tat the word "Nittel" is found in the works of the Rishonim. However it used in relation to the ancient prohibition (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 148:12) of doing business with Gentiles in close proximity to their holidays (Avoda Zara 2a) and not with regards to the practices mentioned above. See Shut Reiach Hasade 1:17 for more.
40. Nitei Gavriel Minhagei Nittel 5:7
41. See Meiri to Avoda Zara 2a and Bava Kamma 37a
42. Isaiah 56:7
Sunday, December 23, 2007
by Rabbi Ari Enkin