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Christmas, the Jewish holiday?

01/11/2016 03:14:16 PM

Jan11

12/25/2015                                                                          13 Tevet, 5776
Dear Friends,

Some of you may be wondering if I've lost my mind (some of you aren't wondering that at all.....). Christmas can't possibly be a Jewish holiday! 

True. And yet, Christmas eve is known in many Jewish circles as Nittel Nacht. There are different ideas as to what the word nittel means - it's either a reference to Jesus's birthday or his being taken from the world. Nacht means night. What, then, do Jews do on Jesus's night? And how did it get to be Jesus's night in the first place?

My old friend and colleague Rabbi Wiki of Pedia sheds some light for us. (We were in the same class with the Googler Rebbe and Reb Siri of the Israeli town of Tapuach). 

In the middle ages, in some communities, Jews were forbidden from appearing in public on Christmas. While many Jews would have been happy to stay in the study halls to learn more Torah, Rabbis forbade Jews from studying Torah on Christmas Eve. Since the light of Torah illuminates the world, the rabbis reckoned that Christmas Eve was not a day that needed the light of Torah. It's probably also true that rabbis were worried about pogroms taking place on Christmas eve, and better for everyone to be safe and quiet at home.

What to do at home on Christmas eve?
What can Jews possibly do on a night that studying Torah is forbidden?

Marital intimacy was also forbidden by the rabbis, who proclaimed that only apostates and sinners were born on Christmas and Jews should therefore avoid procreating on Christmas (though one wonders why they then didn't proclaim that Jews shouldn't procreate a few months beforehand so as not to be born on Christmas, but I don't have a good answer to that). It is a bit ironic that today there are Jewish singles events on Christmas eve in a number of big cities. 

The night was often devoted to leisurely activities - chess and card games and perhaps spinning a top (some scholars surmise that that's where the dreidel came from). Reading approved secular books was allowed, as was doing household chores. Most notably, this was often a night when people stayed up tearing toilet paper.

Why would they do that?
On Shabbat, the custom is not to tear anything, including toilet paper. Once or twice a year, Jews would spend a few hours tearing their toilet paper for the year. Nittel Nacht became known as a time for doing just that. (In case you're wondering Orthodox communities today have toilet paper that is pretorn, not on a roll, but somewhat akin to tissues, one piece at a time - technology has replaced the need for staying up late and tearing toilet paper).

In my house growing up, sometimes we drove through the neighborhood looking at all the Christmas lights. Once or twice we even went to Midnight Mass to see how it went. Though I didn't understand much of the latin liturgy, the pageantry was exquisite, and it was interesting to see. I do know a number of rabbis who make a point of attending Midnight mass most years to further bolster relations with our Christian colleagues.

What did I do yesterday on Christmas eve?
I was here in shul, rehearsing and preparing for tonight's musical service, until about 10 pm and then I went home. I understand some of you were volunteering at Starry Nights, which is lovely. 

However you observed the evening, I hope it was enjoyable.

I am glad we no longer live in a time where we need to be worried about being outside on Christmas. Now of course the tradition is to eat Chinese food and see a movie on Christmas. I'm glad we're able to help with the Chinese food part of that here at shul tonight. My thanks to our chefs and all are volunteers for making it happen!

As this year (2015) comes to a close, I know many of us will take stock and put together some New Year's resolutions. I hereby resolve that 2016 will be a good year for Beth Sholom Synagogue!

May it be good for our shul, and for us all.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ilan

Mon, November 18 2019 20 Cheshvan 5780