For Them, It's Wholly Unholy

Christmas Eve is one of the few occasions when Hasidim refrain from Torah study, do not conduct weddings or go to the mikveh. But they do play chess and work on their bills

On Christmas Eve, known in Jewish circles as Nitel Night, the klipot (shells) are in total control. The klipot are parasitical evil forces that attach themselves to the forces of good. According to kabbala (Jewish mysticism), on the night on which "that man" - a Jewish euphemism for Jesus - was born, not even a trace of holiness is present and the klipot exploit every act of holiness for their own purposes.

For this reason, Nitel Night, from nightfall to midnight, is one of the few occasions when Hasidim refrain from Torah study. On this horrific night, they neither conduct weddings nor do they go to the mikveh (ritual bath). An entire folkloric literature has developed around the unusual recreational activities of Nitel Night. The customs, it should be emphasized, are practiced only by Hasidim. Lithuanian and Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Jews do not suspend their regular Torah study on Christmas Eve.

Chess and cards

The classic pastime on Nitel Night is chess. There is the famous photograph of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, apparently playing chess with his father on Nitel Night, although calendar calculations by Lubavitcher Hasidim rule out the idea that the photograph was taken on Nitel. Some prefer cards, such as Uka, a Galician Jewish version of poker, or 21. Some argue that each card has its own klipa (shell) and thus card-playing on Nitel Night is a particularly serious sin.

Kabbalistic toilet paper

The Knesset correspondent of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, Zvi Rosen, relates that celebrated Hasidic admorim (sect leaders) would cut a year's supply of toilet paper for Sabbath use (to avoid tearing toilet paper on Sabbath) on this night. Actually, this disrespectful act has profound kabbalistic significance, because kabbalistic literature extensively discusses Christianity as waste material excreted from the body of the Jewish people. Today, precut toilet paper for Sabbath use is available on the market; thus, the custom's relevance has diminished.

Another custom of Hasidic admorim is to make calculations on Nitel for the entire year, such as the amount they must set aside to observe the commandment of tithe-giving. Rabbi Hannah of Kalschitz reportedly would study geography on Nitel. The journalist Rosen spends Nitel night arranging his archive, peeling oranges and making marmalade. The Lubavitcher (Chabad) movement's spokesman, Menachem Brod, arranges his pile of bills.

Abstaining from procreation

As was the case in 2000, Christmas Eve or Nitel Night this year falls on Friday night, and this fact has several significant ramifications. Because of this, certain acts that are desecrations of the Sabbath cannot be performed, such as cutting toilet paper or straightening out paperwork. Nor can one sleep throughout the entire Christmas Eve because of the obligation of eating the Friday night meal, although it is customary not to talk about sacred matters at the table when Christmas Eve falls on Friday night.

However, the biggest paradox concerns the procreation mitzvah (commandment). It is recommended that the commandment be observed on Friday night, which is a holy time. Yet on Nitel Night, which has no holiness, it is customary to refrain from observing the commandment, because of the fear that a Jewish child conceived on Jesus' birthday could become an apostate.

A whispered prayer

Abraham Isaac Sperling's "Reasons for Jewish Customs and Traditions (Bloch Publishing Company, 1968) explains that one chief reason for the development of Nitel customs was practical: Anti-Semites would ambush Jews and savagely beat them, sometimes even killing them, in the streets on Christmas Eve. Thus, the rabbis decreed that Jews should remain at home that night and not wander in the streets.

Over the years, abstention from Torah study on Christmas Eve became a custom that, of course, was observed clandestinely. There are tales, however, that describe cases where gentiles, discovering that Jews were playing games instead of studying Torah that night, would burst into Jewish homes, only to discover the young students engaged in the discussion of Jewish law over open books.

One Nitel custom in the Diaspora was to recite the entire "Aleinu Leshabe'ah" prayer out loud. The prayer includes the phrase "those who bow down before vapor and emptiness," customarily uttered in a whisper throughout the year, so that gentiles would not hear the words. On Nitel Night, it was customary, after it had been ascertained that no non-Jews were around, to loudly utter the forbidden phrase.

Ban on Torah study

The source of the name "Nitel" is unknown. The most successful, although perhaps not the most convincing, explanation is that Nitel is an acronym for the Yiddish words "nischt yidden tarren lernen": "It is forbidden for Jews to study." Another explanation is that the term is a corruption of the Latin word for birthday, natalis.

How many Nitels?

Over the years, a collection of Nitel jokes has developed. For example, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi was once asked to eulogize Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism and a secular Jew. After a few moments, he came up with three positive traits: Herzl had never spoken while putting on his phylacteries, had never thought about Torah matters in unclean places and had never studied Torah on Nitel. Or, for example, a young Jewish boy was found studying Torah on Nitel. Asked why he was not observing the ban on such study on Nitel, he replied that he observed the ban on the Armenian Christmas Eve.

The second joke points to a real problem. Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas Eve on the night of December 24. Christmas on the Greek and Russian Orthodox calendars falls on January 6. On which day should Torah study be prohibited? The late Lubavitcher Rebbe proposed that Nitel be observed on the Christmas Eve celebrated by the majority of Christians in that particular country. In the United States, he ruled that Torah study should be banned on the night of December 24, when most Christian Americans celebrate Christmas Eve. Some Hasidic sect leaders and members have refrained from Torah study on both Christmas Eves, and the most meticulous of them even suspended Torah study on New Year's Eve as well.

Slumber of the righteous

One of the early Lubavitcher leaders told his disciples that he disliked those scholars who argued that they could not suspend Torah study for even a few hours and that they therefore had to study Torah even on Christmas Eve. The Saintly Genius of Liska reportedly wanted to study Torah on a Nitel night. However, he fell into a deep sleep and his candle went out. When he awoke, he realized that divine intervention had kept him from carrying out his original purpose.

In an article on Nitel published in the Torah monthly, Moriah, Rabbi Yosef Lieberman offers a solution to circumvent the ban on Torah study: go to bed at nightfall and get up at midnight to study Torah, when such study becomes permissible. An expert on Hasidism, Rabbi Benzion Grossman relates that in the yeshivas of the Vishnitz Hasidim, the students would go to sleep in the afternoon prior to Christmas Eve and would get up at night to make up for the study hours they had missed. However, the Saintly Genius Rabbi Shalom of Kaminka would refrain from sleeping on Nitel, arguing that he always dreamed about Torah matters.

The Holy Land's sacredness

Some people maintain that the Nitel customs need not be observed in Israel, because of the Holy Land's sacredness. Rabbi Mordechai of Slonim ruled that, in the Holy Land, the klipot had no power - not even in Jerusalem, the site of many synagogues. Nonetheless, Hasidic sect leaders who came to the Holy Land continued the Nitel custom, and their disciples followed their example. In contrast, Lithuanian and Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Jews do not observe Nitel at all. "The Hasidim will look for any excuse not to study Torah," quipped one Lithuanian Jewish cynic.