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‘Twas the Night before Christmas: A look at “Nittel-Nacht” by Dr. Moshe Sokolow

December 24th, 2013 by srose

‘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

Chanukah Sameach!

November 27th, 2013 by srose

As the Chanukah lights flicker, be reminded that mitzvot are likened to candles whose sum provide the light of Torah. So too your mission as Jewish educators is to enlighten and inspire your students to mitzvot, as you ignite the fire of Torah within them.

Chanukah Sa-meach from all of us at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education!

The Western Wall: An Arabian Gift

October 7th, 2013 by srose

Our own Dr. Moshe Sokolow writes about the survival of the Western Wall. http://shma.com/2013/10/the-western-wall-an-arabian-gift/

Profiles of Select Azrieli Foundation Scholars: 2012-2013

September 30th, 2013 by srose
  • Rabbi Yossi Bennettt:

Rabbi Yossi Bennettt, originally of Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, NY, graduated YU’s High School for Boys before learning at various yeshivot in Israel, during which time he earned his BA in Talmudic Law and certification from Torah Educators Institute, a division of Torah Umesorah. After returning tothe United States, he learned at Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv for a little over six years, where he earned his rabbinical ordination and his Master’s in Talmudic Law.

“I decided to attend Azrieli for my Master’s because I saw it as a tremendous opportunity to learn and glean from some of the most talented personalities in the field of Jewish education,” said Bennett. “I was excited to develop a more solid understanding of concrete methodologies and pedagogy in the field to which I have decided to devote my life.”

In particular, Bennett praised Dr. Rona Novick, Director, Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Division of Doctoral Studies, and Dr. Pelcovitz, to opening his eyes to the enormous amount of psychology necessary to serve as a proper educator. He also spoke highly of Dr. Moshe Krakowski’s course, Learning and Cognition and Dr. Glanz, who introduced to him the concepts of curriculum and assessment and their roles in education.

“I think the two courses that affected my teaching the most, though, were Dr. Laya Salomon’s course on Differentiated Instruction (DI) and Rabbi Dr. Chaim Feuerman’s course on Models of Teaching,” said Bennett. “Both courses, although very different, had a tremendous amount of practical, implementable techniques which I have since incorporated into my teaching.” [Dr. Salomon is the Director of the Mendheim Student Teaching and Internship Project and Rabbi Dr. Feuerman is the Project’s Chair and the Golda Koschitzky Chair in Jewish Education.]

He continued, “Dr. Salomon removed a lot of the fear of DI that I had felt prior to her course. She instructed, critiqued and suggested how to utilize DI to the fullest in my particular situation and completely understood when something didn’t “fit” with me or my students. Rabbi Dr. Feuerman’s course, although it seemed very elementary, changed a lot of how I teach and forced me to be more aware of what I am doing in the classroom from CFU’s to chavrusa learning to positive, intrinsic reinforcement.”

He currently serves as the assistant principal of Mesivta Ateres Yaakov (MAY) on Long Island, in addition to directing both the athletic program and college guidance department. “I have been making changes and suggestions to preexisting curricula, styles of teaching and methods of assessment, among other things, based on what I learned at Azrieli. I hope that one day, I will be able to develop my philosophy of education to influence an even  larger audience and on a broader scale,” he said. Bennett lives on the Lawrence/Far Rockaway border with his wife, Malkie, and their four children, Akiva, Shira, Moshe and Atara.

Shana Tovah

September 4th, 2013 by srose

Wishing our students, alumni and their families a Ketivah, v’hatimah Tovah from the Azrieli Graduate School. May the new year bring health, happiness and success for klal yisrael!

Shawn Collaborates with Researchers at Gathering of Oral Historians

August 29th, 2013 by srose

Dr. Karen Shawn, visiting associate professor of Jewish education at Yeshiva University’sAzrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, presented and participated in a morning-long session focusing on research about the oral testimonies of child Holocaust survivors during the World Congress of Jewish Studies on August 1. The session was sponsored by the Oral History Division of the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry of Hebrew University, under the direction of Dr. Sharon Kangisser Cohen.

Read more here: http://bit.ly/193vnNe


Advisement and Online Registration starts August 28th

August 12th, 2013 by srose

Advisement and Online Registration starts August 28th and goes through September 18th. Dr. Krakowski is taking advisement appointments the week of August 26th. Students should email Susan Rosenberg at srosenb7@yu.edu to schedule an appointment.

Profiles of Select Azrieli Foundation Scholars: 2012-2013

August 5th, 2013 by srose

Rivka Alter:

Rivka Alter, originally of New Jersey, graduated from Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business in 1995 and completed her Master’s degree in Secondary Jewish Education in 1998 at Azrieli. She is now working on her dissertation, which focuses on problem based learning and its application as part of a Tanach high school curriculum, toward obtaining her EdD from Azrieli.

“I attended Azrieli since I wanted to be prepared to teach Tanach on a high school level,” said Alter. “I knew that I could gain that understanding from my teachers and my fellow students at Azrieli, and I felt that no secular educational program could prepare me for the unique job of teaching in a Jewish day school.”

At Azrieli, Alter cited both Dr. David Eliach and Rabbi Dr. Chaim Feuerman, the Golda Koschitzky Chair in Jewish Education and Chair of the Mendheim Student Teaching and Administrative Internship Program, as teachers who exacted high standards for excellence while she was working to obtain her Master’s. She found inspiration in Dr. Jeffrey Glanz, the Raine and Stanley Silverstein Chair in Professional Ethics and Values, Dr. Shani Bechhofer, and Dr. David Pelcovitz, the Gwendolyn & Joseph Straus Chair in Jewish Education, now, as she worked toward her doctorate. “Along the way, Dr. Scott Goldberg, Director of the YU School Partnership, has been extremely supportive throughout my coursework at all levels,” she said.

Alter lives in Denver now, where she serves as an instructor in Tanach at the Denver Academy of Torah’s middle and high schools. Previously, she served as the school’s acting head of Judaic Studies.

“Teaching has evolved into a huge commitment each year and I am devoted to constantly growing in the field and adopting best practices,” she explained. “Also, the use of technology has become such an integral part of the teaching profession, when used correctly, and I spend time trying to incorporate it into my units and become familiar with the best tools to use.”

Unanticipated Outcomes of Online Learning by Dr. Jeffrey Glanz

June 6th, 2013 by srose

Read what Dr. Glanz has to say about Online Learning…..


Dr. Turetsky’s Recent Article

May 23rd, 2013 by srose

How Online Learning Enriches the Teaching and Learning Experience