Talk About Nittel Nacht at East Denver Orthodox Synagogue, Denver, Dec. 24 2012.


Perhaps this talk should have been from a text, rather than extemporaneous. “Nittel-nacht” is a name found in many Jewish sources for “Christmas Eve.” Some Jewish communities had the tradition of not studying Torah at this time. The most compelling explanation is that the practice arose from staying home Christmas eve, rather than going to the House of Study—in order to avoid drunken hooligans celebrating Christmas eve. If that’s the case, the practice would reflect only practical considerations of safety—not theoretical discussions about the date or the meaning of the date. But many Rabbis offered explanations that make the observance reflect ideology or religion, not simply safety. These run from halachic arguments based on Tractate Avoda Zarah, which indeed has a discussion about what can and cannot be done surrounding the period from December 25 to January 1 (Saturnalia in Roman times) to numerological explanations “proving” that only 364 days of a solar year (365 ¼ days) can be devoted to Torah (no Torah Study on Tish’a Be’Av and 6 hours on Nittel)—to explanations that refer to impurity in the world or imitating non-Jewish practices. One argument I saw suggests that non-Jews are running to Divine Worship at midnight, so Jews could hardly be less religious—surprising in its positive implications for the value of Christian religious activity.

The dates of the Maharsho that I could not find in the talk are 1555-1631. The “Tekufa” is the “average calculated solstice or equinox,” that is, Jewish tradition uses the figure 365 1/4 days in a year (as in the Julian calendar), and divides this by 4, so each Tekufa comes 91 days and 7 1/2 hours after the previous one. At least in theory, the Tekufa of Tevet, (the “period of Winter”) was on December 25 in the year of Jesus’ birth, giving rise to the notion that “Nittl” should be marked on the evening when the Tekufah occurs. In the current year, the Tekufah occurs at 10:30 on 24 Tevet, that is Sunday January 6.

In the talk I mentioned the “Matza Ball” – a phenomenon in a number of US cities. I should note that Denver’s Matza Ball on Christmas eve was “unofficial” – unaffiliated with the group that organized the event with this name in other cities- and in any case is now continued under the name “Heebonism.”

I cited the Yiddish translation of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” — a description of which can be found elsewhere in


Seth Ward

Dec. 24 2012 (some editing Dec. 24-26). 

One URL for image of Lubavitch Rebbes playing chess:

I have no idea whether this photo is authentic–it’s widely disseminated on the web and never provenanced well. There are, however, many references to Lubavitcher Rebbes playing chess on Nittl Nacht. 


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s