‘Twas the Night before Christmas: A look at “Nittel-Nacht”
Dr. Moshe Sokolow
To refrain deliberately from Torah study is uncharacteristic behavior for any religious Jew, let alone for people of piety and devotion. And yet, that is precisely what many of the pious and devoted regularly do two times each year: on Tish`a b’Av and on Christmas Eve. Abstinence from Torah—itself, an invariable source of joy—on Tish`a b’Av is a visible sign of mourning and, as such, it is prescribed for occasions of personal bereavement as well. Abstention from Torah on Christmas Eve, however, has a far more complicated—even labyrinthine—history.
The Mishnah (c. 200 CE) prohibited trade between Jews and Gentiles on Gentile festivals out of concern lest the Gentile celebrate his commercial success through worship, making the Jew an inadvertent accomplice to idolatry. During the 12th-13th centuries, Ashkenazi scholars ameliorated the Talmudic legislation to meet the needs of their society by distinguishing between contemporary Christians and the idolaters of yore. Yet even under these relaxed restrictions, trade on Christmas Eve (and on Easter) remained prohibited. Indeed, one of the earliest explicit references to Christmas as “Nittel” occurs in a responsum of Rabbi Israel Isserlein (Austria, 1390-1460) that includes a restriction on social contacts with Christians on the eighth day of Christmas, i.e., New Year’s Day.
The etymology of “Nittel” is moot. Some see its origin in the Latin for birth (abbreviated from natali domini, birth of the lord) and related to the more familiar “nativity.” Others derive it from a Semitic root that yields either “the one who was taken” or “the one who was hung” (depending on whether it is spelled with a Hebrew TET or TAV). In either case, it appears to be a euphemism for Jesus, adopted either out of a religious concern, to shun explicit reference to an alien deity, or as a practical measure, to avoid Christian censorship.
The custom of foregoing Torah study on Christmas Eve is unattested to before the 15th century and, since its appearance, has frequently been challenged. The Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839, an acerbic critic of the nascent Reform movement), for instance, expressed skepticism over the practice. He recommends going to sleep early, waking at midnight, then resuming a full course of study. He also notes a practice of keeping the mikveh (ritual bath) closed that night and explicitly calls it a foolish custom (minhag shetut). Other sources (cited in the literature on laws and customs) view it as a preventive measure, intended to keep Jews off the streets and thereby protect them against anti-Semitic excesses that were perpetrated on that night. As reasonable a motive as this might seem, however, public prayer on Christmas Eve was never abolished although it, too, surely would have put Jews in harm’s way.
While the custom appears to be rooted in the Ashkenazi Jewish historical experience (and is, in fact, absent in Sefardi sources), not all Ashkenazim viewed it alike. Hasidim have tended to be more punctilious in its observance—some Hassidic rebbes would neither study nor receive requests from their Hasidim before midnight—whereas the Lithuanian yeshivot (academies) deigned to interrupt their customary Torah studies. Indeed, their deans (rashei yeshivah) were outspoken in their opposition to the abstention from Torah study on any grounds (some would say in deliberate reproach of the Hasidim). There were also distinctions between those living among Roman Catholics, who observe Christmas on December 25, and those in Slavic lands where Orthodox Christmas is observed on January 7.
Neither of those two dates, of course, carries any significance according to the Jewish calendar, a fact that has led to considerable speculation concerning a public fast day (ta`anit tzibbur) prescribed by the authoritative Shulhan Arukh—for no express reason—for the 9th of Tevet. Based upon the calculations of a 12th century rabbi and astronomer, Abraham bar Hiyya, it has been conjectured that this marks Jesus’ Jewish birthday. (Some even suggest that “Nittel” stands for Nolad Yeshu Tet L’Tevet.) That religious authorities would have ordered a public fast day to mark the occasion of Jesus’ birth is a sign of their consternation over the long-term impact of Christianity on the Jewish people; that they obscured the reason theretofore is a sign of their circumspection. A popular explanation for customs observed on “Nittel” links them to occult, Kabbalistic notions of essential evil (kelipot) and their proliferation on Jesus’ birthday.
To those Jews who abjured public Torah study on Christmas Eve, the question naturally arose: What to do instead? To many, the answer is simplicity itself: Study Torah at home! To others, who may either have misapprehended the nature of the prohibition or were, in any event, seeking a reprieve from study, another answer was: play cards! It may be only a coincidence that card playing is first noted among Jews in 1415, around the time that “Nittel” is first mentioned, but, once introduced, card playing, like all games of chance, cast an addictive spell over European Jewry. Numerous communal attempts to ban the practice succeeded only in abating it, with exemptions formally granted on minor festive occasions including rosh hodesh (new moon), Hanukkah and Purim. It was also specifically sanctioned on Christmas (curiously paralleling the practice of otherwise temperate Christians at Cambridge University in the time of John Milton).
Alternatives to card playing include chess, and the proximity of Christmas Eve to Hanukkah suggests that dreidel play was invented to pass the time on “Nittel.” Indeed, a gambling game with a spinning top (called a teetotum), first mentioned in the 16th century, was popular in Europe at Christmastime. More unusual is the custom of reading Toledot Yeshu, a medieval Jewish version of the Life of Jesus, and even more unusual—to the point of being nearly apocryphal—is the custom to spend the evening tearing toilet paper for use throughout the year on Shabbat and festivals (when tearing is prohibited).
What do New York Jews do in observance of “Nittel”? Some synagogues have capitalized on the status of Christmas as a legal holiday to feature family-wide programs of Jewish learning. On the Upper West Side, Christmas Eve seems to be a preferred time to see the latest movie of choice in a local theater. Invariably, when the lights go on after the screening the audience exchanges greetings of recognition with one another, often in Hebrew or Yiddish. Perhaps a kosher concession stand or a minyan for ma`ariv is next?
Moshe Sokolow holds the Fanya Gottesfeld-Heller Chair at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration of Yeshiva University, and is the author of Hatzi Nehama: Studies in the Weekly Parashah based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz