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Notes from Limmud 2011

Nittelnacht: Christmas in the Yeshiva

Benjamin Crowne

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout.]


Christmas is important to the Jews, especially Ashkenazim, not because we observe it, but for the last thousand years we've lived as minorities in Christian countries.

Jews wouldn't just ignore the celebration of Christian, they reacted to it.

Why is Christmas celebrated on the twenty-fifth of December? It may well be the birthday of Jesus; it's got a one-in-365 chance of being right. (Also, the shepherds were watching their flocks by night, which indicates it's lambing season. Though, Jesus was born six months after John the Baptist, and we can approximate from information on the watches, if the Gospels were internally consistent, to some time between November and February.)

Christmas also picks up on a preexisting pagan festival, Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival. The Talmud says that the winter solstice festival (the festival in question being here Chanukah) goes back to the very start of mankind:

Avoda Zara 8a עבודה זרה ח א
Adam saw the days getting gradually shorter, he said: "Woe is me, because I have sinned and the world around me is darkenening and returning to its state of chaos and confusion. This then is the death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!" So he began keeping an eight day fast. But as he noticed the winter solstice and the days getting longer, he said: this is the natural world's course and he set forth eight days' festivity. He fixed them for the sake of heaven, but the heathens appointed them for the sake of idolatry. תנו רבנן לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה[ובתפלה]השמים עמד וישב ח׳ ימים בתענית יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים הוא קבעם לשם שמים והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים׃

Nittelnacht is a term that the Jews used to refer to Christmas Eve; there are a whole series of laws and customs referring to this.

The Nitei Gavriel, a mainstream work in the Chareidi community, dating from the 1960s to the present, says (Minhagei Nittel 1.1, 5.1, 5.5):

There is a practice in many communities not to learn Torah on the night which we call Nittel... There are those who forbid marital relations on this night, even if it is the night on which a woman has gone to the mikveh... There are those who eat garlic on this night, on account of the pungent stench.

Garlic is to drive off evil spirits. The first vampire stories were concerned about the influx into England of eastern European noblemen. And these were Catholics; consider also the importance of drinking blood for both vampires and Catholics. [Referrring to the eucharist, obviously: this is not intended as a reverse blood libel!]

Instead of learning Torah, the yeshiva bochurs would often play chess. Sometimes frum Jews today will use Christmas eve to tear toilet paper for Shabboses throughout the year.

The speaker's Rosh Yeshiva said none of his students were holy enough to refrain from studying Torah on Nittelnacht.

Where does the word "nittel" come from?

Sefer Nitzachon:

Nittel—that is "birthday" in Latin [dies natali] ניט״ל: מל׳ נאטא״ל שפירושו יום הולדת בלאטינית

בני יששכר, ספר רגל ישרה (10):

Nittel—because of he who was hanged on that night. ניתל: ע״ש שנתלה באותו הלילה

"Hanging" in Hebrew can refer to impaling (e.g. Book of Esther), so also to crucifixion. (A little confusion with Easter here...)

Nitei Gavriel—Minhagei Nittel:

Nittel—an acronym for "Jesus, born on the ninth of Teves." ניט״ל = ר״ת נולד ישו ט׳ לטבת
See below for more on the ninth of Teves.


Nitei Gavriel, Minhagei Nittel 2.1:
There are those who observe this on the twenty-fifth of December... and those who do so on the sixth of January, and those who do so on the seventh January.
This refers to the Russian Orthodox, who still run according to the Julian calendar. Because they also missed out a leap year we have, this pushed Orthodox Christmas from the sixth to the seventh of January.


Nitei Gavriel, Minhagei Nittel notes to 1.1:
In earlier generations any Jews who were found on the streets on this night would be beaten. Therefore the Sages of that generation decreed that Jews should remain within their homes on this night, and not venture out. And as any Jewish home with a candle lit inside of it might be the cause of a pogrom, it was decreed that Jews should not kindle lights on that night. Because Jews could not leave their home, nor could they light a candle in their homes, they had no way to learn Torah.
This explanation is not found anywhere else. It's a retroactive explanation.
And there are those who explain the custom not to learn on this night as a form of mourning. The birth that is celebrated by Christians on this day has been the source of countless troubles for the Jewish people over the centuries, and is therefore comparable to the day that the Temple was destroyed [when Torah is not learned].
The Chatam Sofer (Kovetz Teshuvot 31) reject the previous explanation for multiple reasons. First, if this were truly a day of mourning, the custom should not differentiate between the first and second halves of the night. However, the custom is to refrain from Torah study only during the first half of the night. [Rather], it is well known that the Christians would arise at midnight to attend religious serives... [therefore the rabbis enacted] a decree against Torah study during the first half of the night. The desired result was that those who nomrally learned Torah during the first half of the evening, would sleep then, and wake up at midnight in order to learn their normal portion of Torah for the evening. This way when the non-Jews were running towards their religious serivce, many Jews were engrossed in Torah study.
The Bnei Yissachar (Regel Yeshara 10) explained the ban on Torah study due to the klippos [Kabbalistic contamination] which is generated on this night.
Sefer Baal Shem Tov (a work attributed to Baal Shem Tov) 2:43a:
Any child conceived on this night will become a heretic.
Talks [sichot] of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Vol 43, 25 Kislev 5750:
We can understand the practices followed by the Rebbeim in connection with nittul. The Previous Rebbe taught that it is customary not to study Torah on that night in order not to increase the Divine life energy present. The Previous Rebbe continued that his father, the Rebbe Rashab would either play chess (or give advice to others playing chess) on that night.
7. Ernst Ferdinand Hess, Juden Geissel (account of a Jewish convert to Christianity):
On this night, we would read the תולדות ישו... [Jews] believe that on this night Jesus is punished for his heresy and false teachings, and must wander through the world on that night.

Chess is quite similar to chevrusa; it involves two people, and back and forth, and analysing, and bringing other people in for analysis.

תולדות ישו is a polemic Jewish, faux-midrashic retelling of the Gospels. It dates from somewhere between the third and seventh century. It is written by someone aware of the Gospels' content. The opening section reads:

In the year 3671 in the days of King Jannaeus,1 a great misfortune befell Israel, when there arose a certain disreputable man of the tribe of Judah, whose name was Joseph Pandera. He lived at Bethlehem, in Judah.

Near his house dwelt a widow and her lovely and chaste daughter named Miriam. Miriam was betrothed to Yoḥanan, of the royal house of David, a man learned in Torah and God-fearing.

At the close of a certain Sabbath, Joseph Pandera, attractive and like a warrior in appearance, having gazed lustfully upon Miriam, knocked upon the door of her room and betrayed her by pretending that he was her betrothed husband, Yoḥanan.2

Thereafter, when Yoḥanan came to her, Miriam expressed astonishment at behaviour so foreign to his character. It was thus that they both came to know the crime of Joseph Pandera and the terrible mistake on the part of Miriam. Whereupon Yoḥanan went to Rabban Shimeon ben Shetach and related to him the tragic seduction. Lacking witnesses required for the punishment of Joseph Pandera, and Miriam being with child, Yoḥanan left for Babylonia.

Miriam gave birth to a son and named him Yehoshua, after his brother. This name later deteriorated to Yeshu. On the eighth day he was circumcised. When he was old enough the lad was taken by Miriam to the house of study to be instructed in the Jewish tradition.

1. Over a century too early!

2. A general mythic trope; cf. Zeus's seduction of Alkmene by assuming the form of her husband Amphitryon, who was away from home; or the birth of Arthur:

Now make you ready, said Merlin [to Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father], this night ye shall lie with Igraine in the castle of Tintagil; and ye shall be like the duke her husband... so this was done as they devised

—Mallory, Le Morte D'Arthur

This reflects the different Gospels' association of Jesus with both Bethlehem and Nazareth; also the association with the House of David.

Ninth of Teves

What's the relevance of the ninth of Teves?

מגילת תענית, contemporaneous with the Mishna:

These are the days on which we fast by Torah writ...
On the eighth [some versions: first] of Nissan—the two sons of Aaron died. On the tenth Miriam died, and her well dried up. On the twenty-sixth Joshua bin Nun died.. On the ninth of Teves—the rabbis did not record why.
There is also a fast on the tenth for the destruction of the Temple, and the eight for the completion of the Septuagint.

A. Jesus?

R. Abraham bar Hiyya, Sefer Ha'avod (12th century) p. 109:
And he [Jesus] was born according to their accounts in the year 3761 from the creation of the world, on 25th December, which was Shabbat 9th Tevet... but no one believes their words... for this date does not appear in any of the [Gospels] or the [Epistles], but is rather the date of a pre-existing [pagan solar festival].
Leopold Zunz, the Rites of the the Synagogue Service (1859, rough translation):
Some Jews fast on this day, for Abraham b. Hiyya calculated that Jesus was born on the ninth of Teves.

And this is not in eastern Europe, but Berlin! The attribution is getting confused, but at least some Jews in the nineteenth century were fasting for that reason.

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata (third century):
And there are those who have determined not only the year of [Jesus'] birth, but also the day... the fifteenth day of the month Tubi; and some that it was the eleventh of the same month.

But this does not turn up at all in the Nittelnacht material. These two concepts—the fast of the ninth of Teves, and the custom of the Jews of Eastern Europe reacting to the celebration of Christmas by their Christian neighbours—came from different places.

This raises the question of where festivals, in general, come from? Consider the emergence of festivals associated with emotional events: Yom Ha`atzmaut, Yom Yerushalayim, Yom Zikaron. [These are far from universally accepted as Jewish festivals, but some denominations have come up with additions to the liturgy to commemorate them.]

B. St Paul?

R. Aaron Worms, Morei Ohr (nineteenth century) Vol. 5, p. 110b:
And the fast of ninth Teves [the reason] is unknown... and in ספר זכרונות I saw that the death of Shimon HaKalponi, who completed/reconciled [hashlim] Israel and arose from them, and Megillas Ta`anis said that the rabbis did not give a reason, as can be implied from here.

"Reconciled Israel" means split off the Christians. תולדות ישו, closing section:

The Sages desired to separate from Israel those who continued to claim Yeshu as the Messiah, and they called upon a greatly learned man, Simeon Kepha, for help. Simeon went to Antioch, main city of the Nazarenes and proclaimed to them: "I am the disciple of Yeshu. He has sent me to show you the way"...

He told them that Yeshu was in heaven... He added that Yeshu desired that they separate themselves from the Jews and no longer follow their practices... were now to observe the first day of the week instead of the seventh, the Resurrection instead of the Passover, the Ascension into Heaven instead of the Feast of Weeks, the finding of the Cross instead of the New Year, the Feast of the Circumcision instead of the Day of Atonement, the New Year instead of Chanukah; they were to be indifferent with regards to circumcision and the dietary laws... All these new ordinances which Simeon Kepha (or Paul, as he was known to the Nazarenes) taught them were really meant to separate these Nazarenes from the people of Israel and to bring the internal strife to an end.

Simeon Kepha is a sort of cross between Peter [= Kephas] and Paul. The lower boundary of the date of composition of תולדות ישו: after Queen Helena found the True Cross. For many years, this was the only story the Jews had of how Christianity arose and the Jews and the Christians split apart.

Not only did the author know about the equivalence of the festivals but he would expect his readers to be casually aware of them too.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2012-01-29 01:21 pm (UTC)
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