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Shedding Light On Nittel Night

Rabbi Naftali Flintenstein

There is a widespread custom not to study Torah on “Nittel Night” – the night of the holiday commemorating the birth of Yeishu. Many halachic sources mention little about Nittel and its customs, presumably due to a fear of reprisal or persecution from the gentiles. Even the name of the night is difficult to source. There is even a question as to when Nittel should be observed. Rabbi Naftali Flintenstein Sheds Light on this unusual custom.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Among many sectors of Torah society, there is a custom not to learn on a night called “Nittel.” Considering the fact that Torah study is a mitzvah that we strive to fulfill every available moment of the day or night, this is a shocking custom. But stories abound of great talmidei chachamim whose only respite from Torah study was on this night, reinforcing the importance of this custom.

The questions are: when did this custom start, why can’t we learn, and when exactly is Nittel?

The earliest source for the name “Nittel” is a work called HaNitzachon, which dates back to the generation of the Rosh. It states that the term Nittel refers to the date of birth of Yeishu.

Nittel Night is also mentioned in the Terumas HaDeshen[i], who was asked about the practice of Jews in certain towns who would send gifts to the local priests and rulers on “the eighth day after Nittel, when their new year begins.” He responded: “It would seem that one should refrain from sending gifts on that particular day, and should give them on the day before or the day after instead.” In accordance with his ruling, the Rema[ii] writes: “If a person wishes to send a gift to a gentile on the eighth day after Nittel, which they call New Year’s, when they view it as a good omen if they receive a gift — if possible, he should send it the night before, and if it is not possible, he should not send the gift on the holiday itself. (The words in bold were censored from later editions.)

As for the origin of the term Nittel, speculation abounds. Some have posited that the name is a reference to Yeishu himself, either because he was hanged (“nitleh”) or because he was removed (“nital”) from the world. Another theory suggests that it is a derivation of natalis, the Latin word for birth. Others suggest that the holiday was given a nickname, “HaTalui” (“The Hanged One”) so as not to refer to Yeishu by name, but it either evolved into the term “Nittel” or was deliberately blurred so as not to arouse the ire of the gentiles.

Although the term Nittel clearly exists in halachic sources for several centuries, the actual customs associated with it are not spelled until much later.

[i] Siman 195. Interestingly, this responsum, along with several others on the topic of dealing with apostates and Gentiles, was omitted from the original Terumas HaDeshen out of fear of the censor. The responsa were printed at the end of the sefer in certain editions.

[ii] Yoreh Deah 148:12


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