Before a discussion of the Jewish view of Christmas, let's look at the holiday and its development. Today's holiday isa far cry from what was once a popular day to literally torture Jews.
Many who are excitedly preparing for their Christmas celebrations would prefer not knowing about the holiday’s real significance. If they do know the history, they often object that their celebration has nothing to do with the holiday’s monstrous history and meaning. “We are just having fun.”
Imagine that between 1933-45, the Nazi regime celebrated Adolf Hitler’s birthday – April 20 – as a holiday. Imagine that they named the day, “Hitlerday,” and observed the day with feasting, drunkenness, gift-giving, and various pagan practices. Imagine that on that day, Jews were historically subject to perverse tortures and abuse, and that this continued for centuries.
Now, imagine that your great-great-great-grandchildren were about to celebrate Hitlerday. April 20th arrived. They had long forgotten about Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. They had never heard of gas chambers or death marches. They had purchased champagne and caviar, and were about to begin the party when someone reminded them of the day’s real history and their ancestors’ agony. Imagine that they initially objected, “We aren’t celebrating the Holocaust; we’re just having a little Hitlerday party.” If you could travel forward in time and meet them; if you could say a few words to them, what would you advise them to do on Hitlerday?
On December 25, 1941, Julius Streicher, one of the most vicious of Hitler’s assistants, celebrated Christmas by penning the following editorial in his rabidly Anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Stuermer:
“If one really wants to put an end to the continued prospering of this curse from heaven that is the Jewish blood, there is only one way to do it: to eradicate this people, this Satan’s son, root and branch.”
It was an appropriate thought for the day. This Christmas, “how will we celebrate?”
The Christmas Challenge
- Christmas has always been a holiday celebrated carelessly. 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.
- Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, a Christian god who came to rescue mankind from the “curse of the Torah.”
- At its origin, Christmas is a 24-hour declaration that Judaism is no longer valid.
- December 25 is a day on which Jews have been shamed, tortured, and murdered.
- Many of the most popular Christmas customs - including Christmas trees, mistletoe, Christmas presents, and Santa Claus - are modern incarnations of some extremely offensive and violent rituals
How Did Christmas Come to Be Celebrated on December 25?
- Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.
- The ancient Greek writer poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes the festival’s observance in his time. In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions these customs: widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; rape and another sexual license; and consuming human-shaped biscuits - i.e. Ginger Bread cookies.
- In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians.
- The problem was that there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this, these Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Yaishu’ birthday.
- Christians had little success, however, refining the practices of Saturnalia. As Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.
- The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687 that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.” Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. However, Christmas was and still is celebrated by most Christians.
- Some of the most offensive customs of the Saturnalia carnival were intentionally revived by the Catholic Church in 1466 when Pope Paul II, for the amusement of his Roman citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city. An eyewitness account reports, “Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators. They ran… amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily.”
- As part of the Saturnalia carnival throughout the 18th and 19th centuries CE, rabbis of the ghetto in Rome were forced to wear clownish outfits and march through the city streets to the jeers of the crowd, pelted by a variety of missiles. When the Jewish community of Rome sent a petition in 1836 to Pope Gregory XVI begging him to stop the annual Saturnalia abuse of the Jewish community, he responded, “It is not opportune to make any innovation.” On December 25, 1881, Christian leaders whipped the Polish masses into Anti-Semitic frenzies that led to riots across the country. In Warsaw 12 Jews were brutally murdered, huge numbers maimed, and many Jewish women were raped. Two million rubles worth of property was destroyed.
The Origins of Christmas Customs
- The Origin of Christmas Tree
Just as early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, so too worshippers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots were recruited by the Church sanctioning “Christmas Trees”. Pagans had long worshipped trees in the forest, or brought them into their homes and decorated them, and this observance was adopted and painted with a Christian veneer by the Church.
- The Origin of Mistletoe
Norse mythology recounts how the god Balder was killed using a mistletoe arrow by his rival god Hoder while fighting for the female Nanna. Druid rituals use mistletoe to poison their human sacrificial victim. The Christian custom of “kissing under the mistletoe” is a later synthesis of the sexual license of Saturnalia with the Druidic sacrificial cult.
- The Origin of Christmas Presents
In pre-Christian Rome, the emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January). Later, this ritual expanded to include gift-giving among the general populace. The Catholic Church gave this custom a Christian flavor by re-rooting it in the supposed gift-giving of Saint Nicholas (see below).
- The Origin of Santa Claus
- Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE and later became Bishop of Myra. He died in 345 CE on December 6th. He was only named a saint in the 19th century.
- Nicholas was among the most senior bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and created the New Testament. The text they produced portrayed Jews as “the children of the devil” who sentenced Yaishu to death.
- In 1087, a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. There Nicholas supplanted a female boon-giving deity called The Grandmother, or Pasqua Epiphania, who used to fill the children's stockings with her gifts. The Grandmother was ousted from her shrine at Bari, which became the center of the Nicholas cult. Members of this group gave each other gifts during a pageant they conducted annually on the anniversary of Nicholas’ death, December 6.
- The Nicholas cult spread north until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshipped a pantheon led by Woden –their chief god and the father of Thor, Balder, and Tiw. Woden had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn. When Nicholas merged with Woden, he shed his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard, mounted a flying horse, rescheduled his flight for December, and donned heavy winter clothing.
- In a bid for pagan adherents in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he did (and they should) distribute gifts on December 25th instead of December 6th.
- In 1809, the novelist Washington Irving (most famous his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) wrote a satire of Dutch culture entitled Knickerbocker History. The satire refers several times to the white bearded, flying-horse riding Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, Santa Claus.
- Dr. Clement Moore, a professor at Union Seminary, read Knickerbocker History, and in 1822 he published a poem based on the character Santa Claus: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in the hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there…” Moore innovated by portraying a Santa with eight reindeer who descended through chimneys.
- The Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast almost completed the modern picture of Santa Claus. From 1862 through 1886, based on Moore’s poem, Nast drew more than 2,200 cartoon images of Santa for Harper’s Weekly. Before Nast, Saint Nicholas had been pictured as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a frock. Nast also gave Santa a home at the North Pole, his workshop filled with elves, and his list of the good and bad children of the world. All Santa was missing was his red outfit.
- In 1931, the Coca Cola Corporation contracted the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking Santa. Sundblom modeled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerful, chubby face. The corporation insisted that Santa’s fur-trimmed suit be bright, Coca Cola red. And Santa was born – a blend of Christian crusader, pagan god, and commercial idol
(Original article is here: http://bit.ly/1dzs4zj)
 3:1 and 23.
 Addison G. Wright, Roland E. Murphy, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “A History of Israel” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, (Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1990), page 1247.
 The first mention of a Nativity feast appears in the Philocalian calendar, a Roman document from 354 CE, which lists December 25th as the day of Yaishu’ birth.
 Increase Mather, A Testimony against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New England (London, 1687), page 35. See also Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday, New York: Vintage Books, 1997, page 4.
 Nissenbaum, page 3.
 David I. Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, page 74.
 Kertzer, p. 33, 74-5.
 Clement Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance, New York: Dover Publications, 1976, pages 178, 263-271.
 Miles, page 273.
 Ibid, pages 274-275.
 Miles, pages 276-279.
 John 8:44.
All you ever wanted to know about Nittel Nacht (found on YUTorah.)
Learning on “Nittel Nacht” Aryeh Lebowitz
Introduction. Many Jews have a custom not to learn torah on the night preceding December twenty-fifth. While this custom has been prevalent in certain circles for centuries, there are few records of its origin or details. The dearth of sources on this topic can probably be attributed to the Christian censors who would not allow anything that can be construed as anti Christian to be published. The records of this custom that have made it through the censors are sparse. This essay attempts to collect the various opinions of the Rishonim and Acharonim as to the origins of this custom and their attitudes toward continuing the custom. [Most of the material mentioned here is taken from Sefer Moadim L’Simcha (Rabbi Tuviah Freund) Kisleiv Tevet chapter 13, and Nitei Gavriel (Rabbi Gavriel Ciner) Minhagei Nittel.]
The etymology of the word “Nittel”. Before discussing the source of the custom not to learn, we will first focus on the etymology of the word “nittel”. This word was used by many rishonim (see Rabeinu Yonah Avodah Zara 2a, Tosafot Rabeinu Elchonon ibid., Sefer Haterumah 134, and many other places) with alternate spellings. Some rishonim spelled it with a tav, while others spelled it with a tet. Apparently, the etymology was already ambiguous during the times of the rishonim. The following is a list of possible explanations of where this word originated:
The author of Bnei Yisaschar, in his Sefer Regel Yesharah (10) writes that because Jesus was taken (natul) from this world in this day it is called “nittel”.
Moadim L’simcha suggests that because Jesus was hung, and we do not want to refer to him by name, we call him the “nitleh” (one who was hung).
Moadim L’simcha quotes from Sefer Nitzachon that “nittel” is based on the Latin word for birthday, an obvious reference to Jesus’ birth.
The source of this custom. The basis of the custom not to learn torah on the night of the Christian holiday is subject to considerable debate amongst the leading authorities. Many of the explanations offered are kabbalistic in nature and therefore beyond the ability of this author to understand (see Shem Mishmuel Derush Chanukah 5677, and Sefer Regel Yeshara 10, both cited by Nitei Gavriel). The following is a list of some of the more prominent explanations offered for this practice:
Ta’amei Haminhagim (page 500) cites the Sefer Likutei Hapardes who explains that in earlier generations any Jews who were found in the streets on this night would be beaten, and any Jewish home with a candle lit inside of it would be the cause of a pogrom. Because Jews could not leave their homes, nor could they light a candle in their homes, they practically had no way to learn torah.
The Korban Netanel (manuscript cited in Nitei Gavriel page 388 note 4) explains the custom not to learn on this night as a form of mourning. 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 is therefore comparable to the day that the beit hamikdash was destroyed. The Chatam Sofer cites this reason in the name of his esteemed teach, Rav Natan Adler zt”l.
The Chatam Sofer (Kovetz Teshuvot 31) himself rejects the previous explanation for multiple reasons. First, if this were truly a day of mourning, the custom should not differentiate between the first and second halves of the night. However, the custom is to refrain from torah study only during the first half of the night (until midnight). Furthermore, if the refrain from torah study were a true sign of aveilut, one should be able to learn hilchot aveilut and other similarly depressing areas of torah, jut as we may do so on Tisha B’av. Instead, the Chatam Sofer suggests 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 normal portion of torah for the evening. This way when the non-Jews were running toward their religious service, many jews were engrossed in torah study.
Sefer Kedushat Tziyon (page 129) points out that the gemara (Sanhedrin 107b) states that the founder of Christianity was a student of Rabi Yehoshua ben Perachya. In spite of his considerable accomplishments in torah study, he managed to become a blasphemer. As such, this person is the greatest example of what the mishnah in Avot teaches us “the learning is not the primary goal, but the action is”. On the birthday of this man we illustrate that torah learning alone will not serve to make us good Jews. Instead we focus this evening on the actions, not on the learning.
IV. Objections to the custom.
- In Eretz Yisrael the custom was never accepted to observe Nittel Nacht. Similarly, Sephardic countries never accepted this custom. The obvious reason that Jews in Sephardic countries did not accept this custom is that there was almost no Christian presence in those countries. In Muslim environments there was no need to pay special attention to the origins of Christianity. Similarly, the Jews who inhabited Eretz Yisrael were mostly Sephardic or students of the Vilna Gaon. Neither of these groups was concerned with Nittel Nacht. For that reason, even those of Chasidic and Ashkenazic background who arrived in Eretz Yisrael accepted the prevalent custom in Eretz Yisrael not to observe Nittel Nacht.
- In Sefer Shemirat Haguf V’hanefesh Rav Chaim Kanievsky reports that the Chazon Ish would learn on Nittel Nacht, and criticized those who did not learn on that night. He explained that the custom not to learn is based on fear of the Christians, which, thankfully, is not a major concern nowadays.
- Sefer Orchot Rabeinu 1:193 reports that the Steipler Gaon would learn on Nittel Nacht, but did so by heart so as not to upset those who have the custom not to learn. Orchot Rabeinu reports further that the Steipler once asked not to be informed when Nittel Nacht is so that he would not have to waste time from his learning.
- Many Jews have observed Nittel Nacht by refraining from Torah study on the evening of Nittel for centuries. The exact night on which people observe Nittel varies based on custom. A full understanding of the various customs requires a strong background in the workings and history of the solar calendar. Such an understanding, while certainly an interesting topic, is well beyond the scope of this essay. (For a clear explanation of the calendar and how it relates to Nittel, the reader is referred to Sefer Moadim L’simcha Kisleiv-Tevet pages 411-416.)
- The custom of Nittel is one of the more perplexing customs the Jewish people have developed, and provides an interesting area of religious, sociological, and historical study. We have merely touched the surface with brief explanations for the custom, and a record of communities that have not accepted the custom. The reader is encouraged to study this matter further and gain insight into this most fascinating and counterintuitive custom.
Sefer Toledot Yeshu (ספר תולדות ישו, The Book of the Generations/History/Life of Jesus), often abbreviated as Toledot Yeshu, is an early Jewish text taken to be an alternative biography of Jesus. It exists in a number of different versions, none of which are considered either canonical or normative within rabbinic literature, but which appear to have been widely circulated in Europe and the Middle East in the medieval period.
The Toledot Yeshu, which ridicules Jesus’ birth, miracles, and death, sheds light on another Jewish response to the threat and allure of Christianity. It may surprise some to hear of Jews engaging in such negative discourse. Mockery, however, is one of the most powerful tools of the weak, and it is not surprising that Jews resorted to this tactic at various times and places.
Toledot Yeshu is a decidedly non-rabbinic counter-narrative and satire of the foundational story of Christianity, which likely originated in the late antique or early medieval period. It probably circulated orally for centuries before being transcribed in various places and times. A version of it was already known to the archbishop Agobard of Lyons in 827 CE, who complained of the Jews’ public and aggressive use of such vitriol to influence potential Christian converts’ attitudes towards Jesus. According to some late medieval sources, it was a Jewish custom to read Toledot Yeshu on Christmas Eve.
Much like the earliest gospel, that of Mark, the earliest recensions of Toledot Yeshu lack his birth narrative. These narratives focus on how Jesus acquired his miraculous powers (according to one version, he stole the name of God from the temple); how he fooled the masses with magic and false miracles; how the rabbis came to excommunicate him; how the Romans convicted him; how he died a charlatan’s death (hanging not even on a tree, but on a cabbage stalk); and suffered a criminal’s burial. As Gager notes, the texts are particularly preoccupied with finding a justification for Jesus’ death, an unsurprising concern in light of Christian accusations that Jews had killed the messiah.
In the later versions of Toledot Yeshu that do contain Jesus’ birth narrative, the author(s) graphically deride every aspect of the virgin birth: Jesus’ father was a villain, the conception happened by rape and adultery, and Jesus’ mother was menstruating at the time of conception (a taboo to Jews and Christians). In one version, his conception even takes place on Yom Kippur. This section of the narrative is so sexually graphic that Yair Furstenberg has suggested that it served as a manual, modeling proper and forbidden sexual behavior in folkloric form.
Interestingly, in almost all versions, Mary herself is portrayed as blameless, an upstanding Jewess who abides by Jewish law, and who is taken advantage of by a villain. Here, we might see evidence of Jewish attraction to a mother of the messiah figure, scattered evidence of which can be found through the medieval period.
Paul too proves intriguing, alighting on the scene much like the prophet Elijah. Since Jesus’ heresy provokes endless infighting among the Jews, Toldot Yeshu portrays Paul (or, in some versions, Simon-Peter) as the unwitting religion-founder and peacemaker, who separates the Christians from the Jews. Working as a double agent on behalf of the pious Jews, Paul dictates a new language to the heretics and teaches them new songs in order to definitively separate Jesus-followers from other Jews. And thus, a new religion is founded.