'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was learning, not even a mouse…
The night before Christmas, known to the rest of the world as “Christmas Eve”, has traditionally been called Nittel Nacht (“Nittel” Night) by Jews living in predominately Christian countries. There is also an age-old custom observed by many Jewish people around the world not to learn Torah on Nittel Nacht (at least until midnight).
What is the etymology of the word “nittel”, and why do some Jews have the custom not to study Torah on this night?
The word nittel first appears in the works of 13th century Talmudic commentators, but any discussion of the word and its etymology was heavily censored by the Catholic Church so that its origin is unclear.
The Sefer HaNitzachon writes that nittel is a variation of the Latin word for birthday – “natal” - an obvious reference to Jesus’ birth.
Others suggest that the word nittel – spelled in Hebrew nun, yud, tes, lamed – is actually an acronym for: Nolad Yeshu Tes L’Teves (“Jesus was born on the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Teves”).
The basis of the custom not to learn Torah on Nittel Nacht is subject to considerable debate amongst the leading authorities. [Many of the explanations offered are kabbalistic in nature, so I will only quote the more revealed and understandable reasons.]
The Ta’amei HaMinhagim writes that in earlier generations any Jews who were found in the streets on this ‘holy’ night would be beaten or even killed. Therefore, the rabbis decreed that the Jews should remain inside their homes on Christmas Eve, and they shouldn’t even light a candle in their homes so as not to attract attention to themselves. Because Jews could not leave their homes, nor could they light a candle in their homes, they practically had no way to learn Torah on Nittel Nacht.
The Chasam Sofer writes in the name of his esteemed teacher, Rabbi Nosson Adler ZT”L, that we don’t learn Torah on this night because we are in a state of mourning. [A mourner is forbidden to study Torah throughout the seven-day shivah period.] The birth that is celebrated by the Christians on this day has been the source of countless troubles for the Jewish people over the centuries and millennia, and is therefore comparable to the day that the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem was destroyed.
The Chasam Sofer himself suggests an alternate explanation for this custom. He writes that it is well known that the Christians would arise at midnight to attend religious services. The rabbis were faced with the following dilemma: If all of the Jews were sleeping at the time that the non-Jews were running with fervor toward their religious service, it would look bad for the Jews. On the other hand, the rabbis did not want to institute a rule that people should wake up at midnight to engage in Torah study, because that would appear as if we were mimicking the non-Jewish practice. The solution to this problem was to enact a decree against Torah study during the first half of the night. The desired result was that those who normally learned Torah during the first half of the evening, would sleep then, and wake up at midnight in order to learn their regular portion of Torah for the evening. This way when the non-Jews were running toward their midnight mass, many Jews were engrossed in Torah study.
Whatever the basis for the custom of not learning Torah on Nittel Nacht, one thing is very clear …. that for many Jews throughout history who lived among Christians, the “holiday season” was definitely not “the most wonderful time of the year”.
For millennia, pagans, Christians, and even Jews have been swept away in the season’s festivities, and very few people ever pause to consider the celebration’s intrinsic meaning, history, or origins.
To learn more about the history of Christmas and the origin of Christmas customs – and how the Christian holiday affected the Jewish people - see the provocative article The History of Christmas by Rabbi Lawrence Keleman, available online at: http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/Christmas_TheRealStory.htm
[Sources: Learning on “Nittel Nacht” article written by Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, available online at: file:///C:/Users/Admin/Downloads/735747.pdf ]