Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nittal Nacht

It’s that time of year again. I’m not sure what triggers the nostalgia; maybe it’s the winter solstice, short days long nights or perhaps it’s the impending New Year that stimulates morose thoughts. It’s been many decades since I thought about Nittel Nacht or Nittal Nacht, depending on your persuasion, but all this past week I’ve been obsessed with it. Nittel Nacht, a derivative of Latin means Christmas (coincidentally, the Ramah, Harav Moshe Isserles makes reference to it in Shulackan Aruch, Yoreh Dea 148:2 referring to the custom of giving gifts eight days after Nittel Nacht, celebrating the new year). In the Ashkenazi tradition it was referred to as Nittal Nacht, meaning, “taken” in Hebrew, referring to the “one” who was taken, arrested, and crucified (although this makes more sense in connection to Easter). Others believe that it refers back to the Hebrew word “nitleh” hanged, perhaps referring as well to being crucified.

Regardless of how one understands the etymology of the word what remains for those coming out of the yeshiva world is that December 24th-25th isn’t Christmas but Nittal Nacht. Ashkenazim weren’t united on how one should mark Nittal Nacht. Many chassidic Jews were predisposed not to study at all on Nittal Nacht but to be very vigilant of Christian intent to harm Jews. Exponents of the Lithuanian Yeshivot studied with vigor. Other quarters felt that it was important to recess from noon till midnight in order to deny Jesus the merit of Torah study on his birthday. Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfort saw it as a day of mourning for all the suffering and persecutions of the Jews by the Christians, to be treated like Tisha B’Av with a prohibition of learning Torah. His student, the Chasam Sofer, suggested that it was important to begin learning again after midnight to counterbalance the devout Christians who attended midnight mass. By the nineteenth century there were indeed practical reasons to continue this custom of closing the yeshivos – pichuach nefesh.

Hypothetically, if any of this made sense I would think that this last reason suggested made the most sense. As a Jew you never knew what to expect on Nittal Nacht. Sometimes it was a pogrom, other times it was blood libel accusations. Rarely did a Jew come away from Christmas untouched. It was never the happy time of year that Andy Williams or Bing Crosby sang about in their endearing Christmas tunes. I can only imagine the anxiety of our ancestors building up as the winter set in. Apart from dealing with the cold winter, illness, lack of medicine and sometimes food, there was one additional worry. Would there be a pogrom, when would it start, from what direction would it come, and how bad would it be. Chanukah couldn’t have been that festive, knowing that just around the corner was Christmas with the inevitable suffering. Imagine spinning the draidele, trying to infuse a little joy in your children’s life wondering when the pogrom would hit and who would survive. Very sobering.

But unlike the Christmas of my ancestors, in America it is, as the song goes “a very special time of year”. Party time and good cheer. The Christmas spirit, streets and homes lit up and stores buzzing with shoppers. Those are my memories of Christmas in America. Perhaps, I should feel guilty, but I’m don’t. I’m aware of our suffering especially around the Yultide, but I didn’t suffer, nor did my parents or even grandparents. Nevertheless I feel conflicted because although my immediate descendants didn’t suffer my people suffered

As it turns out, and to the credit of my yeshiva which had a Lithuanian / brisker orientation there was a slightly reduced seder on Christmas eve to make note of Nittal Nacht, but not enough to totally disrupt the seder in the beis medrash. As I said it was to the credit of the yeshiva because unwittingly they fed into my own conflicting feelings about the day. On the one hand bad stuff happened; on the other hand bad stuff doesn’t happen any more – thank god! Disturbing however, are those institutions that observe the customs / traditions of Nittal Nacht which today strike me as slightly pathological. They are basically arguing that by their own denial of study on Christmas Eve they are dismissing another faith as irrelevant. More disturbing than that however are all those young people today who never heard of Nittal Nacht.