Jews of the 21st century may comment, or even grumble, about the pervasiveness of Christmas in our society, but, let’s be honest, in this day and age, the effects of the holiday season are rather benign. Of course, we must still deal with frequent questions from our children about festive trees and the jolly guy in the red suit. But, nowadays, people do their own thing.
It might surprise some to know that Christmas Eve actually has a name in Ashkenazi Jewish tradition: Nittel Nacht. In many Ashkenazi communities, particularly in Chassidic communities, it is customary NOT to learn any Torah on Nittel Nacht from sundown until midnight. After midnight, however, one is encouraged to study.
Nittel (which may mean either hanged/crucified or birth) Nacht (night) is a custom whose origins are, unfortunately, lost. Many believe that the custom of not studying Torah on December 24th arose as a pragmatic act of protection. On a night of religious fervor among their Christian neighbors, and during days when one needed no real excuse to start a murderous pogrom, it was safest, perhaps, for Jews to stay inside their darkened homes rather than venture out to study collectively in a hall/synagogue. Other opinions believe it may be a custom that was established to minimize any feeling of holiness on that night. Still others opine that it is an act of mourning, commemorating the suffering of the Jewish people during various periods of the “Christian Age.”
In Jewish life, customs have a strength of their own. Whatever the reason for Nittel Nacht, it is a custom that is still followed in various Ashkenazi communities around the world.
This Treat was originally posted on December 24, 2009.
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