This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Silent Night*

A friend of mine who used to teach in a traditional Jewish girls' school once told me how surprised she had been to discover that some of her students were extremely well-informed about the intricacies of the Christian calendar. Their expertise was not limited to the such commonplace knowledge as the December 25 date for Christmas. No, the young ladies in this class were also conversant with lesser-known variations on that date as celebrated by the assorted denominations according to their respective calendars, with much of December and January being sprinkled with more obscure holy days, like Advent and St. Nicholas Day.

It eventualy became clear that the students' erudition on these matters was not an indication of their interest in multicultural ecumenism. Rather, it was a simple consequence of their aversion to homework.

These avid learners were appealing to the Christian sacred calendars in order to exempt themselves from schoolwork on those days, in keeping with a curious custom in some Ashkenazic Jewish communities that prohibited religious study on Christmas.

In the terminology of those communities, Christmas is referred to as Nittel. The simplest explanation of the word is as a variant form of the Latin natalis, as in dies natalis or natale dominus, meaning day of birth, the same word that gives us the French Noël. However, later generations, for whom the original derivation was no longer familiar, subjected it to their own imaginative attempts at speculative etymology.

The most frequently cited theory traced Nittel to the Hebrew form nitleh meaning 'hanged, a word that could legitimately be applied to a victim of crucifixion.

Other writers favored a derivation from Hebrew nittal, meaning taken. Though this produces a better similarity of sounds, its connection to Christmas is harder to fathom. Supporters of this reading understood it in the sense of the one who was taken from Judaism or the arrested one, though this designation would apply more appropriately to Easter.

The avoidance of Torah study on a gentile holy day is a puzzling notion that seems downright pathological in its readiness to diminish one's own spiritual growth in order to deny recognition to someone else's faith. While such narrow-mindedness might have been understandable in the ghettos of medieval Europe where it originated, it is particularly distasteful to find it continued into our own days.

Evidently, this custom was not merely a marginal phenomenon in Ashkenazic communities; The proscription of study on Christmas is mentioned by several respectable halakhic authorities, and in some circles it was treated as a quasi-obligatory practice.

Occasionally, the differing attitudes towards Nittel-nacht were recognized as criteria for distinguishing between the Hassidim and their opponents. Thus, we find that the scholarly orientation of the Lithuanian yeshivahs led many of their leaders to oppose any interruption of study on Christmas eve, whereas Hassidic lore depicted the night as a time of sinister metaphysical foreboding that must be treated with grave vigilance.

The oldest descriptions of a Jewish anti-Christmas can be pieced together from some early seventeenth century writings (albeit most of them were by apostate Jews). We learn from these reports that, in the Jewish folk imagination, Jesus was being depicted as a veritable anti-Santa, a grinch-esque bogymen doomed to creep through sewers on Christmas night, as punishment for his heresy, emerging periodically to terrify children. In order to prevent him from enjoying any easing of his sentence by virtue of the merits of Torah study, Jews vindictively chose that time to refrain from learning.

Not convinced that mere religious contempt provided a sufficient justification for abstaining from such a vital mitzvah, some Jewish authors sought other rationales for the custom. Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfort interpreted it as an expression of mourning, presumably for all the persecutions that were inflicted on Jews since the inception of Christianity. In this respect, it was comparable to the prohibition of Torah study that is observed on the Ninth of Av fast.

His student the Hassam Sofer of Pressburg objected that Rabbi Adler's explanation failed to account adequately for the widespread practice of limiting the prohibition to the hours until midnight. He therefore proposed a different theory: the real purpose of the custom was to encourage Jews to resume their studies after midnight, because otherwise they might (from a heavenly perspective) be compared adversely with the devout gentiles who were spending Christmas eve in pious devotion in their churches.

A nineteenth-century scholar suggested that the custom had evolved from what were initially pragmatic considerations. Because in earlier times, Christmas eve had been an occasion for assaults on Jewish institutions (a claim that, as it happens, has no factual basis), it had been recommended that the yeshivahs be left dark and empty during that night, in order to keep potential attackers from being attracted to the lights.

Those who forbade study on Nittel night insisted that grave consequences would befall people who transgressed the prohibition. One Hasidic rabbi attested that irresponsible individuals who insisted on pursuing their studies had their houses visited by dogs--a terrifying prospect for eastern European Jews, especially since (as the writer hints) dogs have symbolic associations with the demonic realms.

An odd development in the nineteenth century rabbinic discourse involved the identification of Nittel with the winter solstice. Because the astronomical definition of the solstice is at variance with the halakhic usage, and the disparities between the Julian and Gregorian calendars lead to divergences in the computations used by different churches, this interpretation has given rise to some peculiar talmudic arguments over such questions as: the correct halakhic date of Christmas; whether the ban on learning can override the Sabbath; and how to determine the precise moment when Christmas night begins!

As noted above, our conscientious schoolchildren may enjoy the benefits of these uncertainties, and utterly do away with their religious education during December and January, as long as they piously insist on satisfying the full range of calendrical options. What an achievement that would be for Jewish scholarship!

Whenever we hear about representatives of other religious communities mocking or vilifying Jews or Judaism, we consider it unacceptable, and we justly insist that the defamations be stopped. I trust that the same principles apply when the tables are turned. Hopefully, the anti-Christian tone of the Nittel is now nothing more than an obscure historical memory from a more primitive age.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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