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December 24, 2009

Unholy Night

Shtreiml Christmas Eve is one of the few occasions when Hasidim refrain from Torah study, do not conduct weddings or go to the mikveh. But they do play chess and work on their bills.


Originally published five years ago, but still interesting:

For them, it's wholly unholy
By Shahar Ilan • Ha'aretz

Christmas Eve is one of the few occasions when Hasidim refrain from Torah study, do not conduct weddings or go to the mikveh. But they do play chess and work on their bills.

On Christmas Eve, known in Jewish circles as Nitel Night, the klipot (shells) are in total control. The klipot are parasitical evil forces that attach themselves to the forces of good. According to kabbala (Jewish mysticism), on the night on which "that man" - a Jewish euphemism for Jesus - was born, not even a trace of holiness is present and the klipot exploit every act of holiness for their own purposes. 

For this reason, Nitel Night, from nightfall to midnight, is one of the few occasions when Hasidim refrain from Torah study. On this horrific night, they neither conduct weddings nor do they go to the mikveh (ritual bath). An entire folkloric literature has developed around the unusual recreational activities of Nitel Night. The customs, it should be emphasized, are practiced only by Hasidim. Lithuanian and Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Jews do not suspend their regular Torah study on Christmas Eve. 

Chess and cards 

The classic pastime on Nitel Night is chess. There is the famous photograph of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, apparently playing chess with his father on Nitel Night, although calendar calculations by Lubavitcher Hasidim rule out the idea that the photograph was taken on Nitel. Some prefer cards, such as Uka, a Galician Jewish version of poker, or 21. Some argue that each card has its own klipa (shell) and thus card-playing on Nitel Night is a particularly serious sin. 

Kabbalistic toilet paper 

The Knesset correspondent of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, Zvi Rosen, relates that celebrated Hasidic admorim (sect leaders) would cut a year's supply of toilet paper for Sabbath use (to avoid tearing toilet paper on Sabbath) on this night. Actually, this disrespectful act has profound kabbalistic significance, because kabbalistic literature extensively discusses Christianity as waste material excreted from the body of the Jewish people. Today, precut toilet paper for Sabbath use is available on the market; thus, the custom's relevance has diminished. 

Another custom of Hasidic admorim is to make calculations on Nitel for the entire year, such as the amount they must set aside to observe the commandment of tithe-giving. Rabbi Hannah of Kalschitz reportedly would study geography on Nitel. The journalist Rosen spends Nitel night arranging his archive, peeling oranges and making marmalade. The Lubavitcher (Chabad) movement's spokesman, Menachem Brod, arranges his pile of bills. 

Abstaining from procreation 

As was the case in 2000, Christmas Eve or Nitel Night this year falls on Friday night, and this fact has several significant ramifications. Because of this, certain acts that are desecrations of the Sabbath cannot be performed, such as cutting toilet paper or straightening out paperwork. Nor can one sleep throughout the entire Christmas Eve because of the obligation of eating the Friday night meal, although it is customary not to talk about sacred matters at the table when Christmas Eve falls on Friday night. 

However, the biggest paradox concerns the procreation mitzvah (commandment). It is recommended that the commandment be observed on Friday night, which is a holy time. Yet on Nitel Night, which has no holiness, it is customary to refrain from observing the commandment, because of the fear that a Jewish child conceived on Jesus' birthday could become an apostate. 

A whispered prayer 

Abraham Isaac Sperling's "Reasons for Jewish Customs and Traditions (Bloch Publishing Company, 1968) explains that one chief reason for the development of Nitel customs was practical: Anti-Semites would ambush Jews and savagely beat them, sometimes even killing them, in the streets on Christmas Eve. Thus, the rabbis decreed that Jews should remain at home that night and not wander in the streets. 

Over the years, abstention from Torah study on Christmas Eve became a custom that, of course, was observed clandestinely. There are tales, however, that describe cases where gentiles, discovering that Jews were playing games instead of studying Torah that night, would burst into Jewish homes, only to discover the young students engaged in the discussion of Jewish law over open books. 

One Nitel custom in the Diaspora was to recite the entire "Aleinu Leshabe'ah" prayer out loud. The prayer includes the phrase "those who bow down before vapor and emptiness," customarily uttered in a whisper throughout the year, so that gentiles would not hear the words. On Nitel Night, it was customary, after it had been ascertained that no non-Jews were around, to loudly utter the forbidden phrase. 

Ban on Torah study 

The source of the name "Nitel" is unknown. The most successful, although perhaps not the most convincing, explanation is that Nitel is an acronym for the Yiddish words "nischt yidden tarren lernen": "It is forbidden for Jews to study." Another explanation is that the term is a corruption of the Latin word for birthday, natalis. 

How many Nitels? 

Over the years, a collection of Nitel jokes has developed. For example, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi was once asked to eulogize Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism and a secular Jew. After a few moments, he came up with three positive traits: Herzl had never spoken while putting on his phylacteries, had never thought about Torah matters in unclean places and had never studied Torah on Nitel. Or, for example, a young Jewish boy was found studying Torah on Nitel. Asked why he was not observing the ban on such study on Nitel, he replied that he observed the ban on the Armenian Christmas Eve. 

The second joke points to a real problem. Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas Eve on the night of December 24. Christmas on the Greek and Russian Orthodox calendars falls on January 6. On which day should Torah study be prohibited? The late Lubavitcher Rebbe proposed that Nitel be observed on the Christmas Eve celebrated by the majority of Christians in that particular country. In the United States, he ruled that Torah study should be banned on the night of December 24, when most Christian Americans celebrate Christmas Eve. Some Hasidic sect leaders and members have refrained from Torah study on both Christmas Eves, and the most meticulous of them even suspended Torah study on New Year's Eve as well. 

Slumber of the righteous 

One of the early Lubavitcher leaders told his disciples that he disliked those scholars who argued that they could not suspend Torah study for even a few hours and that they therefore had to study Torah even on Christmas Eve. The Saintly Genius of Liska reportedly wanted to study Torah on a Nitel night. However, he fell into a deep sleep and his candle went out. When he awoke, he realized that divine intervention had kept him from carrying out his original purpose. 

In an article on Nitel published in the Torah monthly, Moriah, Rabbi Yosef Lieberman offers a solution to circumvent the ban on Torah study: go to bed at nightfall and get up at midnight to study Torah, when such study becomes permissible. An expert on Hasidism, Rabbi Benzion Grossman relates that in the yeshivas of the Vishnitz Hasidim, the students would go to sleep in the afternoon prior to Christmas Eve and would get up at night to make up for the study hours they had missed. However, the Saintly Genius Rabbi Shalom of Kaminka would refrain from sleeping on Nitel, arguing that he always dreamed about Torah matters. 

The Holy Land's sacredness 

Some people maintain that the Nitel customs need not be observed in Israel, because of the Holy Land's sacredness. Rabbi Mordechai of Slonim ruled that, in the Holy Land, the klipot had no power - not even in Jerusalem, the site of many synagogues. Nonetheless, Hasidic sect leaders who came to the Holy Land continued the Nitel custom, and their disciples followed their example. In contrast, Lithuanian and Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Jews do not observe Nitel at all. "The Hasidim will look for any excuse not to study Torah," quipped one Lithuanian Jewish cynic.

[Hat Tip: Chicago Sam.]

Comments

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Odd sloppy reporting. This year, Xmas Eve, December 24th is THURSDAY night, not Friday night (Shabbos).

Um, it's a five year old article. Nothing odd or sloppy about the dating at all.

Very interesting thanks for sharing.

Ridiculous, reactionary superstition. Why not observe our own holidays and keep them holy, rather than crap all over someone else's holiday.

And let me add... any night (including Shabbos) is a good for playing chess. Wonderful game!

And let me further state that this Jewish boy is currently watching a X-mas eve choral concert on PBS featuring the Luther College choir and orchestra.

Not only am I enjoying the performance, but I'm also checking out college girls singing.

Let this be the worst sin that I commit.

Hmm, thanks for the info. Interesting. This is one area where I always thought of Judaism, or any religion for that matter, to be, well, pathetic. It's so obvious that this is reactionary, based in fear. I've done the same thing with other people whose ideologies I find threatening or disturbing, uttering curses and such.

Of course, I can understand how it would truly seem like this was an UNholy night for Jews who were persecuted and harassed, murdered, tortured, raped, etc... by Christians. I could understand how it would be seen in that light, and if I lived in those times as a Jew, it would be significant to me, even in Kabbalistic terms.

However, it should be noted that although many Xtians celebrate on Dec. 25 or Jan 06, historians actually believe that Jesus would have been born in the spring, I've even read one account of the autumn, but not in December. This actually follows older pagan customs. So wouldn't it be that, actually, nitel night should be calculated to sometime around when Jesus's birth actually was?

The actual memo reads:

“December 25th is universally celebrated by non-Jews, as the birthday of the person upon whom a dominant non-Jewish religion was founded and ‘who had the Halachic status as a Jew who lures other Jews to idol-worship’. A spirit of impurity therefore prevails on that day. (Additionally, there was a period when members of that religion used to celebrate this eve by attacking Jews, which led to an enactment against keeping the Yeshivas open during the eve of Dec 25th).

The Previous Rebbe adds, “It is our custom to refrain from studying Torah on Nitel Nacht until midnight’. The reason, as the Previous Rebbe heard from his father, the Rebbe Rashab, is ‘not to add spiritual vitality’. In other words, not to add vitality to ‘that person’ [who’s birth is celebrated on this night],and ‘those who presently follow his views [i.e.religion]. The Hayom Yom (Teves 17) quotes the Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer Schneersohn of Lubavitch) as saying, ‘I am not fond of those students who begrudge these eight hours and cannot tear themselves away from Torah study!’”

Notes:

Anonymous, “HaMaaseh Hu HaIkar”(Brooklyn, NY: 2006), 10-11.

Imagine if Christians read this article.

Imagine if we read an article in Catholic Digest describing how Christian clerics intentionally acted as described in the article, but on Kol Nidre night, and how we would feel.

That is why we must condemn prejudice in all of its forms. How can we ask Christian leaders to confront anti-Semitism, if we refuse to confront our own homegrown forms of bigotry???

Wool Silky: Very excellent point. Tomorrow I will be departing from tradition and not going for Chinese and a movie. I will instead get up early and make "coquito" (Puerto Rican eggnog). I'm sharing and spending the day with my Hungarian Jewish neighbors. No one bothered to send them the memo that in the U.S. of A, Jews must partake in Chinese and the latest release at the movie house. Have a wonderful Christmas. Mine will be coconut and rum tasting!

But but but.... it's not really J's birthday.... so who cares if a child is conceived on this night.... it's irrelevant... isn't it?

Geez it's nights like these that chassidim need a TV !

The old chasidic tune -

Jesus was born and I don't learn
Jesus was born and I don't learn
Jesus was born and I don't learn
My rebbe's gone away!

I usually like to go to the movies on Xmas eve. Theaters are mostly empty. I usually see lots of jewish folks that also have the same idea there.

Why not send a copy to President Obama and to the mayor of St Paul Mineapolis. (as a special reward for mr Fried man). While at it explain with a note why St Paul is really Paul.
As good Noachides, they should understand chassidic beliefs of tolerance and tolerate them.

This is why people have a negative attitude
toward all Jewish people.
We the normal get bunched together with
the lunatic black hats.
My family will be going over to a friends
home this afternoon.... to have a Christmas meal. Yes I wrote the word Christmas and I am still
breathing.
To all my Christian friends....have a Merry Christmas.

The Knesset correspondent of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, Zvi Rosen, relates that celebrated Hasidic admorim (sect leaders) would cut a year's supply of toilet paper for Sabbath use (to avoid tearing toilet paper on Sabbath) on this night. Actually, this disrespectful act has profound kabbalistic significance, because kabbalistic literature extensively discusses Christianity as waste material excreted from the body of the Jewish people. Today, precut toilet paper for Sabbath use is available on the market; thus, the custom's relevance has diminished.

I have in course of study read all of the AR"I's writings as well as those of Cordevero and the Ramban... I have never found this stated, let alone extensively.

Wool-silk-cotton. Yes, a Christian has read the post and finds it extremely disrespectful, but not surprising. Some years ago, a woman who identified herself to me as a hasid spoke about a group of people called "noahides" and suggested I look at the site noahide.com. As I am an open-minded person, and not at all religious, I looked at the site. There was nothing particularly profound or enlightening there, some silly stuff about Jesus being a sorcerer,or some such thing, and other stuff. One comment stood out, however, and that was that "gentiles did not have genuine free will." Well that's interesting. It sort of let's us off the hook, you could say, for just about any bad behavior. Just automatons, perhaps doing god's bidding? There is also the spitting that the children of my orthodox Jewish neighbors claim they are required to do at the sight of a crucifix. While the argument that the terrible treatment meted out to Jews (and terrible treatment at that, this is not to be denied) by some Christians is the reason for these behaviors, I feel it goes much deeper than that, perhaps all the way back to the very beginnings of Christianity. A deep hostility that some Jews have for Christianity, and indeed, perhaps for all other religions, and a sense of their religion being the superior one. Such attitudes do not bring out the best in human beings, usually only the worst I'm afraid.

My feelings after living for over 20 years in a Jewish neighborhood.

nowadays X-ians and Jews are both threatened in their existence by the Islamic cult, so, solidarity is the word

Judaism's antagonism to christianity no longer really exists. the inspiring factor that induced jews to create a series of customs that demeaned christianity's biggest holiday is a thing of the past.
the biggest opponent of judaism nowadays is not christianity; its secularism. Christianity and judaisim in europe were competing political and judicial systems. The church in poland had real power. Nowadays, the catholic church in america, has nowhere near the influence that it did in peoples lives in poland 100 years ago.
if you read michael wex's book "born to kvetch", you will see the yiddish language in europe used to be full of insults and putdowns of christianity. These terms are now dated and barely used, only remembered in Wex's scholarly book.

Maybe because the night is so unholy and the charedim are not learning this time is used to come up with the next great financial scam...just saying

Of course if your heritage is that from Islamic countries your Christian neighbor was NOT your enemy, but very possibly your friend.

"Ridiculous, reactionary superstition. Why not observe our own holidays and keep them holy, rather than crap all over someone else's holiday."
Well Danny, you think that is bad? Let me share with you my personal minhag for this disasterous night. I usualy eat a bucket of chulent with unwashed beans, a lot of garlic, onions, and dog biscuits (OU parve) so I can fart freilich through the nittels and into the night.

Once I left the physical and mental ghetto of orthodox Judaism, I was able to realize that Christians are just regular people. They don't hate Jews or wish us harm.

Generations ago, especially in Europe, it was a different time, and that was not the case. Fear of Christian antisemitism was understandable back then.

Now it is different. Yes, that's right. People change. There are still a few haters, such as those who would steal the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, but they are a tiny contained element, roundly condemned by all other Christians.

Orthodox Jews today, especially hassidic ones, still find that antisemitism with its attendant paranoia provides vindication to those looking for reasons to stick with the old ways of belief and religious observance, and to remain in physical and mental lockdown.

Islam lags several generations behind Christianity and Judaism. It may take many more decades for their radical angry elements to become a contained minority which does not pose a real physical threat to anyone else.

Secularism is our friend, not our enemy. Secularism brings peace to places historically wracked by religious hatred, strife and violence.

If Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions cannot compete with secularism in the democratic marketplace of ideas, then the problem lies with the religions and how they are conducted and practiced. Religions (including orthodox Judaism) must evolve and drop their negativity and hatreds, or remain behind as philosophic fossils of the past.

I enjoyed a pleasant evening yesterday at the home of Christian friends, seeing their traditions, and will do so again later today. There is no hatred or negativity anywhere to be found.

Peace on earth to all.

Bob Dylan’s Holiday Album outtakes:

Shabbos night, Friday night
All is calm, candles bright
Yiddishe mama bentsching her child
Hot chicken soup, kugel on the side
Ess gezunte heit
Ess gezunte heit

Oh little town of Beit Lechem, how shrill we see thee lie
And in thy narrow, violent streets, the intifada will rise
Yet in thy dark streets begins the everlasting fight
Jihad and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

We wish you a Merry Chanukah;
We wish you a Merry Chanukah;
We wish you a Merry Chanukah and a Happy Rosh Chodesh
Good Yom Tov to you and all the Yidden
Good Yom Tov for Chanukah and a Happy Rosh Chodesh.

God rest ye Menachem Mendel’s men
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Rebbe Moshiach
Didn’t really go away
To save us all from Soton’s power
So we tefillin lay
O tidings of comfort and oy,
Comfort and oy
O tidings of comfort and oy

Bob’s take on Paul’s song:

The mood is right, the dreidel spins
I’ve got a gimmel, and so I win
Simply having a wonderful Chanukah time (2x)
The latke’s hot, the doughnut’s here
We will gain weight, this time of year
Simply having a wonderful Chanukkah time (2x).
The Miami Boy’s Choir sing their song
They practiced all year long
Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding
Ooy, ooy, ooy, ooy, ooy
Ooy, ooy, ooy, ooy, ooy.

For equal time, he did a version of John’s song:

So this is Yom Tov
And what have you done
Another month over
And Tevet just begun
And so this is Yom Tov
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
Alter kocker and young

Chorus:
A very Merry Chanukah
And a happy Rosh Chodesh
Let's hope it's a good one
Without anything bogus

Chorus

Latkes and sour cream, if you want them
Latkes and sour cream

Happy Chanukah!


A new generation of negativity, paranoia, and mental illness:

http://www.crownheights.info/index.php?itemid=23214

Notice the Rebbe pictures and banners in the background at 770.

WSC: They seem to be in the holiday spirit. All they need is some eggnog.

YL, I am surprised that the tables don't have the obligatory bottles of Mountain Dew and Smirnoff's.

BTW, I include you in the pantheon of great Jewish songwriters of holiday music, along with these:
http://forward.com/articles/121598/

while I agree that the Hassidic custom of not studying torah on Christmas eve (Nitel Nacht) and its rationale is regressive, I found myself last night at an IMAX screen watching "Avatar". In similar fashion, I spent the same occasion 6 years ago watching "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King". Both were very enjoyable and moving, particularly the latter. The Avatar is a thrilling visual experience that leaves "Star Wars" in the dust. Big budget action movies will likely take the Avatar concept as a model henceforth.

It is a great pity, if not crime, that some Orthodox Jews seem locked into old ways of acting and thinking regardless of new realities and circumstances. While the halachic process is necessarily conservative, customs that have lost their real rationale (or never had a proper rationale) should not be perpetuated.

Y. Aharon

Our community has a program through the Federation we are calling Tzeason of Tzedakah. Various volunteers (including myself and my family) take over the operations of moveable feast, the animal shelter, meals-on-wheels routes, the homeless shelter, the home for pregnant girls, the Ronald McDonald House, various soup kithcens and other charities that usually employ christians, so that they can spend the holiday with their families - the same as we would like them to do for us on ours. Try it next year, it's a very interesting experience.

Ah, nittel nacht. Another example of the ultra-orthodox strategy of blurring the line between halacha and custom.

Halacha are rules from God. Customs are rules from men.

Nittel nacht is part of a bunker, easter european Jewish mindset that has no relevance in America of 5770.

Here is a letter my Christian Professor friend wrote me:

If each of our communities could clean up their own act first, this would be a major step toward the understanding, respect and reconciliation we need yet to achieve in interfaith relations today.

Didi Remez has translated a Yediot Ahronot story about the movement against Christmas in Israel.

http://coteret.com/2009/12/22/yediot-the-war-on-christmas-jerusalem-edition/

An excerpt: "Every year, the Jerusalem Rabbinate also acts to ensure that fir trees not adorn places of entertainment. A source in the Kashrut Department said that this is done every year in consent, and that businesses that don’t comply can find their kashrut certificate revoked." The Chief Rabbinate explained the measure thus: "symbols that are liable to offend members of other faiths should be avoided.”

A Christmas tree is deemed offensive. How long before yellow badges are required?

YL - Thank you for serving up that pile for us, as it is written "You gotta serve somebody."


I had a theory I've never researched to prove: The custom of dreidel gambling is tied into the purposeful dissing of Nittlenacht. Have to check it in Gaster.


Off to Jerusalem tomorrow for a week.
I'm hoping that by flying on Asarah b'Tevet it will be a more pleasant flight.

שבוע טוב

OCR, have a safe journey and a most enjoyable visit!

Thanks, OCR. Have a safe trip.

what are they worried about?
being themselves avot avot hatumoh all year round, what do they achieve retaining extra tumo by not going to miqve on that night?

WSC,
the pictures from crown heights
http://www.crownheights.info/index.php?itemid=23214
this is amazing, judging by the pictures and yarmulkes, they just traded maschiach, except that yoshke is more kosher; since his followers are non jews that are allowed shituf by halakha. those of crown heights, messitim umadicheem es yisroel.

YbM, excellent observation.
It is indeed ironic how they are sitting there in 770, surrounded by Yechi banners and portraits of their own Moshiach, while they intentionally disrespect the celebration of another Jewish self-proclaimed Moshiach from another era, who had his own band of Jewish followers, who eventually formed their own religion based upon belief in him as their Moshiach.

It is ironic in the most Kafkaesque sense of the term, that in all of his writings, Rabbi Schneersohn never even mentions "Jesus" even once by name, but his Hasidim still treat the Rebbe as if he were really "Jesus" redux.

Chabad has gone insane and there are no leaders to set it straight...

With respect to the "Noahide" promotion, Chabad is really trying to wean the Christian world away from Jesus with a rather banal substitute--Noahide religion. The lunacy about Jesus being a "sorcerer" (see the infamous medieval tract, "Toldoth Yeshu") is quite offensive to our Christian friends and if I were a Christian, I would find it offensive as well.

Chicago Sam, I personally think that promoting "Noahides" is actually done out of fear-fullness of outright promoting Judaism and also because of a kind of anti-goyim racism/ distaste that Chabad feels toward goyim. The attitude towards Noachides that is given off by most haredim is at the very least extremely patronizing- the Noachides are kept in a kind of perpetual waiting room, perpetual 2nd class citizens, with Jews being 1st class.

It's easy to diminish Chabad's power- they survive on donations. If people stop donating money, they'll have less money to spend on kiruv.

Yea Dave,

Chabad cannot escape its racist and patronizing ways.

How can we expect tolerance from others when we so obviously and blatantly act in an intolerant manner. If we are ever to live in peace, writings and acts of the nature described herein must be consigned to history as mere curiosities and anachronisms, and never again to be practiced by our people.

The first time I saw a reference to this practice, I thought it was a joke. Apparently not.

I get the idea of being different/separate, but this takes it a bit far.

I totally agree with WoolSilkCotton's point about how would we feel if, say, Catholics did something like this on Kol Nidre.

It's a load of nonsense.
I also wonder if half of them keep to this as they don't even know when Christmas is. They are living in their own insular world they have no clue what is going on.

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