Israeli Rabbis and Christmas Trees
Every few years the Israeli Chief Rabbinate seems to think that Christmas trees are a threat to the Jewish character of Israel. The latest chapter in the Rabbinate Christmas Tree Saga began after a Christmas tree was placed in the student center of the Technion and the campus rabbi ruled that religious Jews should avoid entering that space or eating at restaurants that are found there. There was even a small demonstration of religious students against the Christmas tree.
Additionally, the Chief Rabbinate threatened to revoke the kashrut certificate of any hotel that had a Christmas tree in its lobby. One hotel owner was even quoted as saying that “Obama lights Hanukah candles, why shouldn’t we decorate a tree”?
From the JTA:
Rabbinic officials in Jerusalem and northern Israel recently issued separate statements saying that displays of Christmas trees are against Jewish law. Other Israelis rushed to the defense of the ornamented evergreens. The difference of opinion over Christmas highlighted disagreement about the role of religion in the Jewish state. In a letter that emerged Tuesday, the Jerusalem Rabbinate urged hotels in the city not to put up Christmas trees this year. “As the secular year ends, we want to remind you that erecting a Christmas tree in a hotel contravenes halacha and that therefore it is clear that no one should erect [a tree] in a hotel,” Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar wrote to hotel managers. The letter also said it was “appropriate to avoid hosting” New Year’s parties, reminding hotel managers that the New Year is properly observed at the beginning of the Jewish calendar. A day earlier, the rabbi of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a prestigious public science and engineering university in Haifa, forbade students from entering the student union on campus because of the presence of a Christmas tree in the building.
Someone posted to Twitter a picture of a Hanukiyah and a Christmas tree at Ben-Gurion Airport, so I wonder how that will affect traffic through the airport in the coming weeks.
The Technion has had a Christmas tree issue before, take for example this Maariv article from 1963.
At a party for international students and Israelis the organizers displayed both a Christmas tree and Hanukiyah. The article even describes some discussion that went on that included different students describing the meaning of their holiday to the other group.
Not surprisingly there were some within the religious community who were upset at this incident. The religious journal Kol Sinai asked “How much will secular education decline–what will be the reaction of the government which covers a large portion of the Technion’s budget”?
Two years later in 1965 there were a number of hotels who reported pressure from the Chief Rabbinate not to put up a Christmas tree in their hotels. The response from many of the hotel managers was that they had never done so in the past and weren’t intending on doing so this year.
In 1978 a reception was held during the Christmas season in the Knesset for European parlimentarians and a Christmas tree was put up. Not surprisingly, numerous religious MKs objected to the Christmas tree.
The response to these Mks was that it wasn’t a Christmas tree at all, but rather a small tree that was always in the Knesset and was moved just for the reception.
I was able to find a number of interesting halakhic discussions on Christmas trees. One rabbi from Bat Yam (Shu”t Asher Hanan, vols. 6-7, par. 31) was asked whether a Jew can sell Christmas trees to non-Jews. The short answer, it’s possible to permit it. Rabbi Shmuel Vozner, the author of Responsa Shevet ha-Levi was asked (vol. 10, par. 132) whether the owner of a building can put up a Christmas tree for the non-Jewish residents. He wrote that it was permitted for a number of reasons: 1. Today a Christmas tree really has no religious or idolatrous meaning; 2. They can buy a Christmas tree from someone else; 3. If he refused to put up a Christmas tree it might cause enmity (איבה). Just to be sure, Rabbi Vozner suggests that the Jew make it clear that he is just doing this for the non-Jewish manager and that if possible, he should try and get money for doing it.
Photo of Christmas tree at Technion from here.