Friday, December 24, 2004

Nitl Nacht -- the origins

This time of the year, there really isn't so much going on other than Christmas. We look forward to getting back to writing about some more 'Orthodox' topics in about a week in a half. In the meanwhile, as a sort of compromise, let's talk about where the phrase 'Nitl Nacht,' or Christmas Eve, and the Chassidish custom not to learn Torah (and do a bunch of other things) that night come from.

1. The origin of the custom: Two main theories:

  • In Eastern Europe, most people were too poor to own sefarim, so they needed to do their learning at the Beit Midrash. On the night of 24 December, it was just too dangerous for people to walk around (i.e., to and from the Beit Midrash), and so the custom arose of not learning on that night.
  • Spiritual/mystical/Kabbalistic -What a Jew learns Torah, it brings about an improvement in the world. We don't want to bring about such improvements at a time when the Christian majority is devoutly steeped in their prayers, lest outsiders believe the improvement came from the Christian worship / lest any of the spiritual energy created by Jewish Torah learning to be diverted to Jesus' credit.
  • Another possibility is that the original practice was to go to sleep early and when the mid-night masses would begin Jews would gather in synagogues and learn all night. All that remains of this custom is not to learn on the eve of December 25th. Seemingly connected is the explanation brought by the Hatam Sofer (Likutei Shut Hatam Sofer no. 20, that ideally, Jews should be learning then to counteract the effects of the Christian prayer during midnight mass. But our leaders did not want to require a special seder(learning session) on that night, lest they appear to be reflecting the practice of non-Jews. Hence, they wisely prohibited learning before midnight, knowing that dedicated students of Torah would rise after midnight to make up the study they had missed.

    2. Origins of the phrase, 'Nitl Nacht': Possibilities include:

  • Derives from the Hebrew word "nitleh" ("hanged"), describing Jesus' end (although Christmas of course celebrates his birth...)
  • The term "nittel" comes from the Latin, either dies natalis (day of birth) or Natalis Domini (birth of our Lord).
  • Some say it alludes to negativity - "nit"
  • Nitl is defined as a yiddish acronom for "nisht tor lernen"/"nisht yidden terren lernen,'-- ie. "not allowed to learn."

    For everything else you ever wanted to know about Nitl Nacht -- including strange customs and jokes (!), there's Ha'aretz. Extensive correspondence on the topic (including several paragraphs which I've shamelessly plagiarised above) here, here and here .
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