Menachem Mendel

Menachem Mendel

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A few centuries before Jews started observing the custom of eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve there was another Jewish custom which was observed on that night called Nittelnacht. Its observance consisted of an avoidance of studying Torah and people would do such things as play cards. Eliezer Segal has a short summary about it on his nice web site. For those of you who are really interested in this custom they can read all about it in Marc Shapiro’s comprehensive article “Torah Study on Christmas Eve” in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 8, no. 2 (1999), pp. 319-53. Eli Turkel who has compiled a bibliography of “works by and about” Rav Joseph Soloveitchik has said that the Rav used to comment that “he is willing to see the Hell he gets for learning Xmas eve and the heaven someone else gets for playing cards instead”.

Just as this post was about to go to press I saw something interesting in David Golinkin’s edition of Louis Ginzberg’s responsa. In 1911 there was an infamous blood libel in the Ukraine known as the Beilis trial. One of the “expert witnesses” for the prosecution was the notorious anti-semitic priest Justin Pranaitis, the author of the anti-semetic tract The Talmud Unmasked (I haven’t found a link to this book which isn’t from an anti-semetic web site). Louis Ginzberg was asked by Louis Marshall to formulate a response to Pranaitis’ testimony. In his response Ginzberg noted that in at least one place in his book Pranaitis wrote that when the Jews called Christmas Nital they were actually cursing Jesus. Ginzberg points out that it is actually from the medieval Latin Natale Domini, which means “birth of the lord”. Ginzberg goes on to say “Is it thinkable that a priest should not know the Latin for Christmas? Of course we have to admit, we have no knowledge of the education of the Turkestan priesthood, and it is perhaps possible that Paranaitis does know Latin” (ed. Golinkin, p. 234 and see n. 18 on p. 250).

On that note, enjoy your Chinese food.

Update: Via Paleo Judaica an interesting discussion over at Slate on the historical Jesus.

Update II: Menachem Butler over at AJHistory has some similar information on Nittel Nacht.

2 Responses to “Nittelnacht”

  1. 1

    B’hatzlacha, both with the blog and with your good wife’s understanding. A bunch of hevre with whom I went to high school actualy play cards every Nitelnacht – though in recent years, with my increased interaction with various Christian communities, not to mention my not being very good at poker, I haven’t participated.
    Hag Urim Sameah

  2. 2
    Menachem Mendel:

    Much to my dismay the local kosher chinese place is closed b/c it is motzei shabbat. Thanks for being the first person to place a comment.




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