An Interesting Christmas Memory

An Interesting Christmas Memory

Posted on December 25, 2020 by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Haredim Purin Mea  Shearim Santa Claus

In the pre-COVID 19 era,  one could sometimes spot a Chabad rabbi putting Tefillon on a Jewish Santa Claus. It reminded me of a story from Eli Plaut’s  book, Kosher Christmas.It 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 seem 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.

Some time ago, a Chabad friend of mine sent me the following email 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 “that man . . . ”

Names characterize our personal identity. To have a name means each of us is a real person. Is it any wonder why we sometimes feel slighted when somebody forgets our names? “What are we?” we wonder, “a non-entity”? Yet, by not referring to Jesus by name, Christians cannot help but feel slighted. 

I feel slighted for them.

The past rebbes of Chabad minced no words about this show of disrespect—especially on Christmas Eve. 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 Schneerson, 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 Schneerson, 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?”

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. 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.

At least the Hasidim are consistent if nothing else!

Perhaps the most important question we should ask is: Is there a place for Nittel Nacht today? Emphatically, “NO!!!” Not unless one wishes to insult our Christian neighbors. While there are a 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.

Some religious Jews are not the only ones who suffer from this kind of historical intolerance. 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.

Recently, I came across a family picture when my siblings were under ten years old. We were standing next to Santa Claus. My father, a Holocaust survivor, had a wry sense of humor. He said to Santa, “We are Jews and we really do not believe in you, but we think you are really good for the Christians who do. Have a Merry Christmas.”

Father always had an unusual sense of humor, but we never forgot the story. On an ironic level, one year during Purim, a Hassidic family in Me’ah She’arim had his ten children dressed up in little Santa Claus outfits.

It was so cute!!

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

=====

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. Schneersohn 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:155Posted in biblical theologyEdit

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