For nearly a century now, scholars have sought to discover the rationale behind the Nittel Nacht tradition – a cluster of Jewish observances carried out on Christmas Eve. The Yiddish word “Nittel” for Christmas is likely derived from the medieval Latin name for Christmas, Natalis, although it is also often associated with the Hebrew nitleh (“the hanged one”), which was used in medieval times to refer to Jesus. For more exciting stuff please subscribe to our Facebook Page.
For most Orthodox Jews, Christmas Eve was popularly thought of as a time of heightened super-naturalism. They believe that the dead walked the earth as ghosts, witches, and werewolves. Jews believe that it is best to eat a lot of garlic, avoid sacred activities, and abstain from sexual relations since any child conceived that night was sure to be cursed and grow up to be a tool of the devil. Churches wouldn’t help, since maleficent forces made them special targets during Christmas. Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Jews were playing Dreidel, being celibate, and tearing toilet paper.
Christmas Eve meant staying up all night with family and friends—singing, dancing, playing games—all to avoid a visitation from the dead.According to Judaic studies scholar Rebecca Scharbach,
Jew avoid Reading Torah
Jews refrained from reading the Torah, abstained from sex, and ate lots of garlic as they played cards all night long. The parallels are so striking because Nittel Nacht is actually a “Jewish adaptation of the [Christian] tradition. Although Torah study was forbidden, some privately studied what’s called Toledot Yeshu—a medieval manuscript that tells the story of Jesus from a non-Christian perspective. A few didn’t even sleep on Christmas Eve for fear that they might dream about Torah study. For more exciting stuff please subscribe to our Facebook Page.
The first explicit reference to the practice of avoiding Torah study appears in Rabbi Yair Bacharach‘s Mekor Chaim, composed sometime between 1660 and 1692, while the first allusion to the practice of staying up late playing games appears in a Jewish communal ordinance from 1708. Another early written reference to the practice of abstaining from reading the Torah is in 17th-century writing by Rabbi Yair Bacharach.
The Talmud, with its share of rabbinic repudiations against Jesus, was never a big fan of Christmas. Call it the Grinch. Indeed, the rabbis looked at it as a day of mourning. And Christmas Eve—named “Nittel Nacht” by Jewish scholars in the 17th century—took on a life of its own. Some Jewish mystics were under the impression that many apostates were conceived on Christmas Eve (which is one reason the rabbis forbade sex on Dec. 24). In Europe, the Jewish community was the victim of more acts of violence on this night. All in all, it didn’t end up being a festive evening for Jews. For more exciting stuff please subscribe to our Facebook Page.