The little-known Jewish holiday of Christmas Eve. Seriously.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 23 2012 10:00 AM

Holy Night

The little-known Jewish holiday of Christmas Eve. Seriously.

(Continued from Page 1)

In classic Talmudic fashion, there are debates as to when Nittel Nacht actually begins. Chaim Saiman, a law professor at Villanova who specializes in Jewish legal theory, calls it the "Russian nesting doll" theory. Ask one question and several others pop out. You can't study Torah on Christmas Eve? Great … when does that start? Midday? Sunset? Nightfall? And since Orthodox Christians observe Christmas in January, there was actually a rabbinic debate about when to "celebrate" Nittel Nacht. Not surprisingly, extra-strict Jews decided to hedge their bets and observed Nittel Nacht on both nights.

So what would Jews do on Christmas Eve?

1) Tear toilet paper. I kid you not. Bear with me, as the reason is a bit convoluted: Observant Jews do not tear anything on the Sabbath as they consider it a form of "work." As such, they either don't use toilet paper on Saturdays (opting instead for pipe-clogging tissues) or pre-rip toilet paper before sundown on Friday. (I reluctantly confess, this is something I was exposed to while growing up the son of an Orthodox rabbi.) Since Jews were not allowed to study Torah on Christmas Eve, the rabbis still wanted the community to be doing something, um, productive. So they suggested people spend the time pre-ripping toilet paper for the entire year. I wish I was joking but, alas, I am not.

2) Play cards, play chess, spin a tiny top. Many synagogues held poker games on Christmas Eve; some say this is where the custom of spinning the dreidel on Hanukkah matured from, as a way for Jews to pass to the time.

3) Everything from managing finances to reading secular books to, get this, sewing. (That last one was actually a custom of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.)

It's obviously important to keep in mind that the often bizarre customs of Nittel Nacht were, as Rabbi Ari Enkin points out, "born out of political realities rather than theological ones. … Nittel Nacht comes to us from an era when relations between Jews and Christians, the Church and Judaism, could be described as 'tense' at best. We are fortunate to be living in a day and age where relations between these two groups have flourished immensely."

Advertisement

I couldn't have said it better. This is an era of remarkable religious tolerance. Hanukkah menorahs get erected next to Christmas trees at the mall. Kwanzaa gets its own postage stamp. The Gap's holiday commercials name-check winter solstice. Which is why most Jews no longer celebrate (or even know about) Nittel Nacht. It is, on many levels, a holiday far past its expiration date.

Regardless, because it's the nature of the beast, there will be Jews gone rogue: holding poker tournaments and furiously ripping toilet paper this Christmas Eve. And to them I simply say, "Merry Nittel Nacht, and to all a good night."

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.