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Santa Claus, Nitel Nacht and Chabad

Chabad Florida Tefillin Santa closeup 12-2013

 

This past week, a newspaper featured a picture of a Lubavitcher rabbi putting tefillon on Santa Claus. It reminded me of a story from Eli Plaut’s  book, Kosher Christmas. Once mentions how an old Ukrainian Jewish immigrant dressed up as Santa Claus and spoke Yiddish. When speaking to Alan King, he quipped, “Men Mahk a leben,” which means, “A man has to make a living!” (p. 135).

Chabad and Christmas seems like an odd combination. Actually, Chabad’s attitude toward Christmas as a holiday has never been especially positive. Chabad Hassidic literature proves this point.

Here is an anecdote.

A Chabad friend of mine sent me the following email that and solicited my opinion. It comes from the Lubavitch Headquarters regarding how the Lubavitcher (Chabad) Hasidim must conduct themselves on Christmas Eve. Many Jews and Christians may find this custom interesting but very strange–and for good reason!!

“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).”

Note that Chabad never refers to Jesus by his proper name. Simply put, Chabad considers Jesus to be a non-person.

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe adds, “It is our custom to refrain from studying Torah on Nittel Nacht until midnight. The reason, as the Previous Rebbe heard from his father, the Rebbe RaShaB (Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer Schneersohn, a.k.a., the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe), is so that one will not add spiritual vitality to that person [Jesus], and those who presently follow his views [i.e., Christians everywhere]. The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (i.e., Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schnnersohn, the 6th Rebbe) quotes his father in the popular Hayom Yom(Teves 17), ‘I am not fond of those students who begrudge these eight hours and cannot tear themselves away from Torah study!’” [1]

Incidentally, most ultra-Orthodox Jews, like the Lithuanian and Sephardic communities, disregard this custom; for them—the study of Torah is of primary importance.

HOW ARE WE TO UNDERSTAND THE ORIGIN OF THIS CUSTOM?

To understand a Jewish custom, it pays to have the curiosity and determination of a Sherlock Holmes. Most of you reading this Hassidic instruction might be wondering: “What in the world are they talking about? Why should we finish Torah study before Christmas Eve?”

The answer is more complex than most of us realize.

The origin of Nittel Nacht in modern rabbinic literature is one of the more fascinating chapters of Jewish history and folklore. “Nittel ” actually comes from the Latin, “Natalis,” or, “Nativity Night.” It is truly ironic that 99% of all the Hassidic Jews follow this observance, haven’t the foggiest idea that Nittel Nacht means “Nativity Night.” It is also possible that Nittel Nacht may be a corruption of the Latin dies natalis, “birthday,” i.e., the “birthday” of Jesus.[2]

While Christmas is a joyful holiday for billions of people, historically, during the  medieval era and the centuries that followed, Jews were forbidden to appear on streets and public places on the high Christian holidays under penalty of severe punishment; hence the schools and synagogues were closed on those days. [3] Young and old, who were compelled to remain at home, enjoyed themselves with a variety of games; consequently the meaning of the word Nittel received the folk etymological explanation as being an abbreviation for “Nit Iden-Tore-Lernen” (“Jews must not study Torah”).

Of course, the time of Nittel Nacht will vary depending whether one is a Greek Orthodox Christian or not, for they celebrate the holiday on January 6th. Some Hassidic Jews, Ilan mentions, will not study Torah on New Year’s Eve either for the same reason.

In the final analysis, is there a place for Nittel Nacht today? Emphatically, “NO!!!” Not unless one wishes to insult our Christian neighbors. While there are number of customs that originated during the most depraved times of medieval history, it behooves us to let go of our medieval attitudes.

As modern Jews, it behooves us to cultivate a relationship with our Christian neighbors and friends based on the principle of mutual respect. Jewish leaders often insist that Christianity purge itself of its anti-Semitic attitudes, and this is indeed necessary.

Therefore, the custom of not studying Torah on Christmas Eve ought to be discontinued by any person who wishes to cultivate a respectful relationship with their Christian neighbors. This cannot be done so long as we hold on to the old ideas that should have been discarded long ago in the dustbin of history. Fortunately, most Jews have long historically embraced this change in attitude–except for a handful of Hassidic Jews in Brooklyn and in Israel who are still desperately clinging on to the ghosts of Christmas past.

Today, even Orthodox Jews are beginning to explore interfaith dialogue for the first time in recent memory. We are no longer living in an age of religious polemics and religious intolerance. American society is definitely far more tolerant than the world our ancestors left long ago.

No religion is immune to the dangers of promoting religious prejudice; or as they say, “A pig with lipstick is still a pig.” Prejudice and intolerance should not be quietly accepted as if it is normal–because it is not! Unfortunately, the ghetto is more than just a historical space–it is an unhealthy state of mind that we must leave behind.

The medieval and hateful mentality of the past must be banished by all 21st century people of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths. In a world where the Abrahamic religions are at times still in conflict with one another,  the only solution to the conflict is to let go of the symbols and metaphors of religious hatred and intolerance that still unconsciously clings to our own faith communities.

When Katie Goodman sings, “I’ll be Jewish for Christmas,” her song captures the ambivalence many Jews feel in living in a predominantly Christian society. It is true that many Jews tend to be hypersensitive to their status as the “Other” during the Christmas season.

Yet, this need not be the case. We need to live in the present and embrace a love for people of all faiths.

I want to wish all of my Christian brothers and sisters a very Merry Christmas to you all!

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Notes:

[1] Anonymous, HaMaaseh Hu HaIkar (Brooklyn, NY: 2006), 10-11. I would also add that the Rabbis of Lubavitch have never referred to Jesus by name, but always through the pejorative designation of, “that man.” In biblical and rabbinic literature, to be without a name is to be condemned to virtual non-existence.

[2] Curiously, but erroneously, Rabbi M. M. Scheneersohn attempts to provide a Hebraic basis for the word’s etymology, “The word  nitel’ implies ‘lack,’ or possibly ‘suspended.’ In Latin, natal means  “born,” i.e.,  ‘the time of birth’”” (Letter dated 9th Kislev 5735, printed in Likutei Sichos Vol.15,  554)

[3] The earliest Halachic reference of this custom dates back to R. Yair Chaim Bachrach (1638-1702) in his Mekor Chaim of the Chavat Yair OH:155



Discussion

  1. Yochanan Lavie  December 25, 2013

    Jesus, as you know, was not born on Dec. 25. He was born some time in the Spring (exact date unknown). As you probably know, the Greco-Romans celebrated Saturnalia on this day, and the Celtic and Germanic pagans celebrated Solstice. This holiday is a co-opted mash up, which doesn’t mean it is any less special to our Christian friends (to whom I wish a merry Christmas). That said, not studying Torah on Jesus’s non-birthday makes no sense. Maybe Chabad should celebrate Menachem-mass instead.

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  2. Gnarlodious  December 26, 2013

    As a former Christian, I see the appeal of Chabad as based on imitating Christianity. They attract secular and fringe Jews using the same gimmicks as Christians use to convert Jews, albeit without the personage of yoshki. Except for possibly the rebbe, who is vaguely present as a messiah icon. We should thank Chabad for resurrecting the word “messianic” as it applies to Judaism, else the Christians would own the word and beat us over the head with it. In fact, I often speak of Chabad as being “messianic” and seeing Jews look up with alarm. I think it’s important that we don’t let the word “messianic” refer to Jesus believers, but rather a collective urge of all people for redemption. If that urge is what today represents, then it is a fine thing. The birthday of the messiah is like the sun (son?) rising in the sky, but it seems like most have forgotten that in their headlong rush to get stuff.

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  3. Yochanan Lavie  December 26, 2013

    We don’t need a second dead messiah religion. God is our savior, abstract though she is. Jesus or Menachem are human bengs, not saviors.

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