Sunday, December 24, 2017

What is Nittel Nacht?

With few exceptions, Christmas is a fairly dull day for Jews around the world. Christmas Eve, on the other hand, has some unique traditions. The most well-known is probably that Jews in the United States have popularized the tradition of eating Chinese food and viewing movies on Christmas Eve, and this custom has seeped into cultures throughout the world. But it is Nittel Nacht that is the most unique of them all. 

Meaning and Origins
Nittel Nacht originated in the 17th century and its name is difficult to decipher. Nacht is German for "night," but the term Nittel's origins are less clear. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Natale Dominus, which is Latin for "The birth of our God"
  • Natal, which has roots in the Hebrew for "to have been hanged" or to "be taken away"
  • Nolad Yeshu Tet l'Tevet, which is Hebrew for "Jesus was born on the ninth of Tevet" (and whose acronym would be NYTLT. 
The latter is likely the most accurate, although it still makes the overall translation a bit obscure.

The term Nittel Nacht originates from the 16th or 17th century when Jews were prohibited on Christmas from public appearances and studying the Torah, particularly because most at this period didn't have books at home with which to learn, and going to the synagogue or house of study was a dangerous prospect. Thus, learning and any errands were put off because Jews feared pogroms. In some places, where the treatment of Jews was particularly harsh, rabbis urged their congregants to extinguish all lights throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, just to be extra careful. 

Likewise, Jewish mystics during the period believed that marital relations on the day would result in apostates, so rabbis of the time forbade such relations. Similarly, mystics forbade studying Torah because Christmas was considered a day of widespread adultery and Torah study contributes to goodness and light in the world, making the day itself and the act of learning incompatible. 

There have been some suggestions that the game of dreidel arose as a quiet indoor activity because Chanukah and Christmas often fall in close proximity, with the two holidays often falling at the same time (Shem Mishmuel Vol 2 p.75).

The Customs
In addition to the above customs, there were countless others observed in different communities, including
  • Playing cards, which was frowned upon by some halachic authorities
  • Playing chess, which was the practice of the Chabad rebbes Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson 
  • Tearing toilet paper for Shabbat use throughout the year (there is a prohibition against certain types of tearing on Shabbat)
  • Reading Toledot Yeshu, a parody of the Christian gospels
  • Organizing the family finances
  • Reading secular books
  • Sewing
How To
In modern times, because Jewish-Christian relations are not nearly as tense as they were during the Middle Ages, the practices of Nittel Nacht are not as widely observed. Likewise, in Israel and other Sephardic communities, the custom never took hold, and even those communities from tense regions in Europe who fled to Israel didn't take the custom with them. 

In fact, there are many communities who intentionally study Torah on Christmas Eve to show that there is no longer a fear of Christian uprisings and pogroms of the past. Nonetheless, some Orthodox communities (specifically Chabad) still observe Nittel Nacht  and the one consistent custom across the board is to not study Torah (in some cases just until midnight) and to participate in activities that exercise the mind (like chess). 

Bonus Fact
Interestingly, in the regions where Nittel Nacht was developed, there was no such thing as a Christmas Eve that fell on December 24th. Instead, Nittel Nacht was observed around January 6th or 7th.

Note: This was originally published on December 23, 2015 on Since then, this content has been removed from their website.