Rabbi Avraham Rosenthal
evening of Nitel. This custom is not mentioned anywhere in Shas; neither Bavli nor Yerushalmi, nor is it cited in the Rishonim or the writings of the Arizal. Very little was written on the subject by the Acharonim, presumably out of fear of repercussions from the Christian-dominated governments to which they were subject. Also, the minhag only existed among Ashkenazi Jews; those of Sephardic descent never heard of the custom, presumably because they usually lived among Muslims.
REFERENCE TO “NITEL”
We find reference to the word “nitel” in the Rishonim. The Mishna (Avodah Zarah 1:1) maintains that for three days prior to their holidays, it is forbidden to do business, loan money, repay loans and other specific activities, with idol-worshipers. The Gemara explains the reason for this prohibition: that since the idol worshiper profited through these activities, this will cause him to give thanks to his avodah zarah on his holiday. It is forbidden for a Jew to bring this about, as it is written (Shemos 23:13), “The names of other gods you will not mention; they shall not be heard on your mouth.” Rashi explains that one cannot cause the non-Jew to mention the name of an idol. The Rashbam quotes his grandfather, Rashi, as saying that this is only prohibited on two holidays, one of which is “nitel,” since it is in honor of “hataluy” – “the one who was hanged” (Orchos Chaim, Hilchos Avodah Zarah #1).
Another Rishon that mentions “nitel” is the Terumas HaDeshen (#195). There was a custom in some communities to send gifts to the priests and the rulers on “the eighth day of nitel, which is their new year.” It is interesting to note that this teshuvah was either omitted from or censored out of many of the older printings.
MAILMEN, MECHANICS, AND NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBORS
Although not directly related to our subject, this responsum of the Terumas HaDeshen has practical halachic ramifications for us. Let us digress for a few moments to discuss this issue.
It is common practice to give gifts during the non-Jewish holiday season to non-Jews from whom one benefits on a regular basis, e.g., doctors, mailmen, mechanics, employers, employees, and next-door neighbors. Is this permitted? There are actually two issues involved: 1) the Torah prohibition of “lo sechaneim,” and 2) as we mentioned, the possibility of causing the non-Jew to give thanks to his avodah zarah.
The Torah commands regarding the seven Canaanite nations (Devarim 7:2), “You shall smite them, utterly destroy them; you shall not make a covenant with them, velo sechaneim.” One of the explanations mentioned in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 20a) is that it is forbidden to give non-Jews “matnas chinom” – a free gift, which is quoted by the Rambam (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 10:4) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 151:11). This prohibition is not limited to the seven nations or to idol worshipers, as is evident from the Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 249:2, quoted in Shach Y.D. 151:18), who writes that Bnei Yishmael (who are neither part of the seven nations nor idol worshipers) are included in the prohibition of “lo sechaneim.”
If this is all true, how can one ever give a gift to someone who is not Jewish, even without the issue of causing him to give thanks to his avodah zarah? The answer is based on a Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 20a, s.v., Rebbi Yehudah) who maintains that if one knows the non-Jew, it is not considered to be a “free” gift. The reason why one gives a gift to someone who he knows is because of darchei shalom, to remain on good terms. In fact, when the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 151:11) cites the halacha that one may not give a gift to a non-Jew, he adds that it is forbidden to give it to one “whom he does not know.”
What about the prohibition of causing the non-Jew to give thanks to his avodah zarah? The Terumas HaDeshen (ibid.) rules that although one should preferably not send the gift on the holiday itself but the day before, if he has no choice, he may even send it on the holiday. The reason is because nowadays it is uncommon for the non-Jews to give thanks to their idols, and the only reason why they like gifts at the beginning of their year is that it indicates good fortune. L’havdil, this is similar to our custom of simanim on Leil Rosh Hashanah. This Terumas HaDeshen is quoted in the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 148:12). By the way, most editions of the Shulchan Aruch have had a few words of this Rema censored out; the passage should read: “If one sends to a non-Jew nowadays on the eighth day after nitel that they call new year…
WHAT IS “NITEL”?
Let us now get back to our subject, and discuss the meaning of the word “nitel.”
In his Sefer Regel Yasharah (#10), the author of the Bnei Yisaschar explains that the word “nitel” is not Christian in origin; rather it is a Jewish nickname for the Christian holiday (Sefer Nitei Gavriel [Chanukah], pg. 392). Several explanations of this name have been suggested: One approach is based on the Orchos Chaim quoted above that the word refers to the fact that Yeishu was hanged. The source of this is a Gemara in Sanhedrin (43a). (This Gemara was actually deleted from our texts by the Christian censors, however it can be found in Koveitz Chesronos HaShas, if not in newer editions of the Shas where it was restored.) The Gemara relates that Yeishu was hanged on Erev Pesach. Forty days beforehand an announcement was made that Yeishu HaNotzri was to be hanged for performing kishuf (witchcraft) and for enticing Jews not to follow the Torah, and anyone who had anything to say in his favor should come forward. Although he was not killed by hanging, rather by sekilah (stoning), the Gemara writes that anyone killed by sekilah was hanged. This is based on the possuk (Devarim 21:22), “and you will hang him on the tree” (See Rashi ibid.).
Incidentally, the Maharil (Sefer Maharil, Likutim #103) explains the meaning of the word “notzri.” He said that although we tell the non-Jews that the word refers to Yeishu’s birthplace, Netzeret –Nazareth, it actually refers to and emphasizes the fact that he was notzar – he was formed and born of a man and woman.
The various seforim that mention the word “nitel” spell the word in different ways. Some spell it nun-yud-tav-lamed. This spelling is apropos to the previous explanation that refers to someone who was hanged, as the word “taluy” is also spelled with a tav. Others replace the tav with a tes, which brings us to the next explanation.
Some maintain that the word “nitel” is from the Hebrew expression “netilah,” as in “netilas lulav” – taking the lulav. In this context it refers to Yeishu who was taken from the world.
There are those who suggest that the word “nitel” hints to the fact that one should not learn, for if we jumble its letters, they form the abbreviation of: “Yidden, torn nisht lernen” – Jews! We are not all allowed to learn (Nitei Gavriel ibid.). (See also Moriah, Tishrei 5746, article by Rav Yosef Leiberman, pg. 131.)
Some explain that “nitel” comes from the Latin word “natal” – birthday, referring to the fact that Yeishu was born that day (Nitei Gavriel ibid.).
REASONS FOR THE CUSTOM
The minhag of not learning on Nitel Nacht is relatively old. The first mention of it is in the Sefer Mekor Chaim (155:1), written by the author of Shu”t Chavos Yair and printed over three hundred years ago. Many reasons for this custom have been suggested. We will quote a few of them:
1) The most straightforward reason mentioned was actually a very pragmatic one. It was simply not advisable for a Jew to be found on the streets that night as the non-Jews, often drunk, would think nothing of killing him. Since most homeowners in those days could not afford the luxury of seforim and if one wished to learn, he had to go to the local shul, the rabbonim advised people to stay home and not learn. (Heard in the name of Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, z”l; see also Sefer Ta’amei HaMinhagim pg. 500.) Also, according to the non-Jewish bylaws in some communities, it was forbidden for a Jew to step foot out of his house on that night (see Shu”t Mefanei’ach Ne’elamim #4). Some maintain that the Jews were even afraid to have light emanating from their homes on that night, so they all went to sleep (Nitei Gavriel pg. 387, footnote 5.1, quoting Sefer Otzar Minhagei Chasidim).
2) The Chasam Sofer (Koveitz Teshuvos #31) in discussing the reason for this custom writes that he heard an explanation from his teacher, which he does not quote other than to note his disagreement. Although the Chasam Sofer does not quote his teacher’s opinion, in Kuntres Koveitz Michtavim (#4, Tishrei 5754), we find the missing explanation and that he heard it from his teacher, Rav Noson Adler. The reason learning Torah is forbidden is because of mourning (Nitei Gavriel, pg. 388, footnote 5.2). Presumably, Rav Noson Adler was comparing Nitel Nacht to Tisha B’Av; just as it is forbidden to learn on Tisha B’Av because of mourning, so too it is forbidden on Nitel Nacht.
3) The Chasam Sofer disagrees and writes that the custom is only to prohibit learning until chatzos. If the reason is indeed because of mourning, why should there be a difference between before chatzos and after? On Tisha B’Av, learning is forbidden the entire day.
For this reason, the Chasam Sofer suggests another explanation. The custom of the non-Jews was to go to their churches for prayers from chatzos. If the Jews would keep their usual schedule of learning from the beginning of the night and then go to sleep at midnight, there would be a terrible accusation in Heaven against them, chalilah; the non-Jews are praying and the Jews are sleeping! The obvious solution to this problem would have been to institute that the Jews should also stay up the entire night so as to deflect the accusation.
However, the Chasam Sofer maintains that making such a decree is not tenable, since it would smack of imitating non-Jewish practices. He found a basis for this in the halachos of Erev Rosh Hashanah. Although there is a minhag to fast on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the custom is to eat before daybreak. The reason for this is so as not to imitate the non-Jews who had a custom of fasting on the day before their new year (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 581:2).
Instead, the Jews accepted upon themselves a different practice. They desisted from learning at the beginning of the night and instead went to sleep. After several hours of sleep, they awoke at chatzos and learned until morning.
4) Until now we have discussed some of the more straightforward reasons for the minhag. However, we will see later that there are divergent customs as to which night one should not learn. In order to understand those customs, we must mention an approach that is based on Kabalah. Rav Yosef Leiberman, in his article on the subject of Nitel Nacht (Moriah article), suggests an approach based on the Sefer Darchei Chaim veShalom (#825), which records the minhagim of the Minchas Elazar of Munkatch z”l. He explains that on the night of Tekufas Teves there are intense negative spiritual forces called klipos that are very predominant. (We will discuss the relationship between Tekufas Teves and nitel nacht later.) Although normally, the way to combat these forces is through Torah and mitzvos, on this night there is a great danger. This is based on the words of the Be’er Heiteiv (Orach Chaim 571:1) that until a wicked person repents, any mitzvah that he does or any Torah that he learns feeds the negative spiritual forces. On any other day of the year, we learn and do mitzvos with the hope that Hashem accepts our thoughts of repentance and that our Torah and mitzvos should be favorable in His eyes. However, on the night of Tekufas Teves, when the klipos are so intense, there is a fear that these forces will overtake our Torah learning.
THE MISSING DAYS
Among those who have the custom of not learning on Nitel Nacht, we find that there are two minhagim regarding which night is nitel. In order to understand this, we need a short introduction.
Until the late sixteenth century, much of the world used what was called the Julian calendar. This system, instituted by Julius Caesar over two thousand years ago, assumed that the solar year was three hundred sixty-five and one-quarter days long. In order to compensate for the extra quarter day, a leap year was made every four years and one day was added.
In actuality, this calculation was imprecise and the year is some eleven minutes shorter than originally estimated. Over the course of the centuries, these eleven minutes per year accumulated and it was discovered that the equinoxes and solstices had slowly drifted backwards in the calendar year some fourteen days. Therefore in order to bring the calendar back into synchronization with the seasons, on February 24, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed the institution of a new calendar. Being that the Julian calendar was too long, it was necessary to subtract some days. Whereas according to the Julian calendar there are one hundred leap years every four hundred years, according to the new system, there would only be ninety-seven. This was accomplished by making the following rule: years divisible by 100 would be leap years only if they were divisible by 400 as well. So, in the last millennium, 1600 and 2000 were leap years, but 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not. In this millennium, 2100, 2200, 2300 and 2500 will not be leap years, but 2400 will be. (See Bircas HaChammah by Rabbi J. David Bleich [Mesorah Publications, 1980], Chap. 2.)
Additionally, in order to bring the seasons back to where they had been originally, it was decreed that ten days would be dropped from the calendar. Hence, the day following Thursday, October 4, 1582 was Friday, October 15. This system is known as the Gregorian calendar.
Not everyone accepted this innovation. Although most of the countries dominated by the Roman Catholic Church adopted the new calendar within a short time, the Greek Orthodox Church did not. Therefore, until today this latter church does not celebrate December 25, but rather January 6. The reason why the discrepancy between the two dates is more than the original ten days omitted from the calendar is because the Julian calendar continues to lose a day every one hundred and twenty-eight years.
V’SEIN TAL UMATAR
As an interesting aside, this is the reason why the Beis Yosef instructs us to start reciting v’sein tal umatar (Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 117) on November 22, not in December. This is because he wrote his commentary during the mid-sixteenth century and died some eight years before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Hence, to “convert” the Beis Yosef’s date to the date we begin reciting v’sein tal umatar, one must add twelve days. During the twenty-second century, the date will again slip one day and become December 5 instead of December 4.
Another topic that we need to discuss before proceeding is that of tekufos. The tekufos are the yearly seasons: Tekufas Tishrei is the beginning of autumn; Tekufas Teves initiates winter; Tekufas Nissan, spring; and Tekufas Tammuz, summer. In the secular calendar, these are referred to as the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes. Although in the modern secular calendar these events take place between the twenty-first and twenty-second of September, December, March, and June, this was not always so. Over two thousand years ago, when the Julian calendar was first instituted, these seasonal changes took place on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of those months. It was only with the introduction of the Gregorian system when they choose to delete ten days from the calendar that the date was moved to the twenty-first or second. Thus, during the days of Chazal the Tekufas Teves coincided with December 25.
Chazal had two calculations for the tekufos, that of Rav Adda and that of Shmuel. Although the tekufah of Rav Adda is the more precise calculation, for various reasons beyond the scope of this article, it is not used anymore in practical application. During the time of Chazal it was used for determining whether a leap year was required. The tekufah of Shmuel is the one used for calculating when v’sein tal u’matar is inserted in davening. According to Shmuel, the solar year is three hundred sixty-five and one-quarter days. This of course is the same length as the Julian calendar. This is not an indication that Shmuel did not know the precise calculation. The Gemara (Berachos 58b) describes Shmuel as being familiar with the “paths of the sky” as he was with the streets of his city, Nehardea. Rather, Shmuel’s method of calculating the tekufos is much simpler and it was decided that for practical purposes, the approximate calculation was sufficient (Birchas HaChammah, ibid.).
Because of this imprecision, Tekufas Teves has slipped from its original date of December 25 and is now approximately January 6. This fact has ramifications for the minhag of not learning on Nitel Nacht.
WHEN IS “NITEL”?
The Shulchan Aruch writes (Orach Chaim 580:2) that there was a minhag to fast on the ninth of Teves, “and it is not known which calamity occurred then.” The Taz and the Magen Avrohom both note that the reason for this fast is because Ezra HaSofer died on that day. However, the Tosafos Chadashim (on Megilas Ta’anis [last chapter]) maintains that the reason for the fast of the ninth of Teves is because Yeishu was born on that date. There is a tradition that in that year the ninth of Teves was also the date of Tekufas Teves.
As we mentioned, over two thousand years ago the winter solstice and Tekufas Teves took place on December 25. The Roman Catholics continue to celebrate on this day just as they did in ancient times when it was the day of the solstice. However, the Greek Orthodox, who did not accept the Gregorian calendar’s adjustments regarding religious observance, celebrate on January 6, as this would be the date according to the Julian calendar. (See Moriah article.)
Some maintain that the minhag of not learning on nitel nacht is practiced on the night preceding December 25, which is the holiday celebrated by the Roman Catholics, regardless of the fact that it is not the night of Tekufas Teves. The Chasam Sofer and those that came from the Germanic countries observed this date. Others hold that the night when one should not learn is that of Tekufas Teves, which is either January 6 or 7. This was the custom practiced by Chassidim of Poland,GaliciaandRussia. Aside from the fact that it is the night of Tekufas Teves, when, as we mentioned earlier, negative spiritual forces are predominant, in those countries it is the night of the non-Jewish holiday. Some maintain that Nitel Nacht is dependent on when exactly the tekufah occurs. If it is before noon, the night before is observed; if it takes place after noon, the minhag is practiced the following night (Sefer Nitei Gavriel pg. 395-7; Moriah article).
Although the prevalent custom is to observe only one night of nitel, there are some who observe both. It was reported in the name of the Sanzer Rav z”l that it is not necessary to observe both. This is based on the Gemara (Yerushalmi Berachos 9:5), “If you leave me for one day, I will leave you for two.” He explained that if one does not learn for one day, it is as if he did not learn two days (Sefer Moadim LeSimcha, vol. II, pg. 416).
HOW TO OCCUPY THE TIME
If one has the custom of not learning on Nitel Nacht, what should he do?
We find several practices among the gedolei Yisroel: 1) As we mentioned earlier in the name of the Chasam Sofer, one should go to sleep until chatzos and then wake up and learn the rest of the night; 2) Some had the minhag of playing chess, as this was an intellectually oriented pastime; 3) There were those who occupied themselves with financial calculations; 4) and some dealt with community issues (Sefer Nitei Gavriel, pp. 403-408).
There was also a custom to play cards on Nitel Nacht. Although many gedolim justified this practice, many spoke out very strongly against it. The Ksav Sofer (Drashos vol. I, pg. 75) bemoaned the situation that on such a terrible day of calamity for Klal Yisroel, people would sit and play games. Others write that even if people wish to rely on the actions of certain great people who did play cards, who is to say that they did not have some higher intent that common people have no concept of? According to some, card playing was only permitted for those who did not know how to learn and if they did not play, they would commit more serious transgressions, however, bnei Torah may not play under any circumstances (Shu”t Chavos Yair #126; Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Koveitz Teshuvos, #31-32; Moriah article; Sefer Moadim LeSimcha, pp. 418-420).
According to Rav Shalom of Belz z”l, until chatzos one should occupy himself with thinking about the greatness of Hashem and attempt to cling to Him as much as possible. In this way he can counteract the negative spiritual forces. Based on this some suggest learning mussar or reading stories of tzadikim as this is a method of improving one’s ways and coming closer to Hashem (Moriah article).
THE MINHAG IN OTHER COMMUNITIES
The custom in most Chassidic courts is to refrain from learning on Nitel Nacht. This is also true of many chachmei Ashkenaz, such as the yeshivos of Germany in which the Chasam Sofer learned, the Arugas HaBosem, Maharam Shick and Rav Yonasan Eibshitz (Sefer Moadim LeSimcha, pg. 409, who quotes Shu”t Divrei Yisroel (Rav Yisroel Veltz of Budapest) vol. II, #21 and Sefer Arugas HaBosem at the end of Parshas Shemos; Sefer Ta’amei HaMinhagim, pg. 500).
It is reported that the Maharsha also did not learn on that night and he involved himself with calculating his ma’aser money accounts. It is related that someone informed the government that the Maharsha hated the Christians, and claimed that the proof to this was that he did not learn on Nitel Nacht because the air was impure. That evening the Maharsha was in his study examining his accounts and a sefer fell off the shelf. He replaced it, but it fell again. This occurred three times and he realized that there was something unusual going on. He opened the sefer in order to examine it, and at that moment the police and the informer burst into the room. They saw the Maharsha learning and they took the informer away (Moadim LeSimcha, pg. 416).
However, as we mentioned, in the Sefardic communities this minhag is unheard of (Shu”t Yabi’a Omer, Yoreh De’ah, vol. VII, #20). Additionally, in most Litvishe yeshivos, the learning seder continues as usual. The author of Orchos Rabbeinu relates the following (vol. I, pg. 193): when he came to learn his regular session with the Steipler and informed him that it was Nitel Nacht, the Steipler told him that, if so, they would “talk in learning” and not learn from a sefer. This was because the Steipler was concerned not to make a chilul Hashem, as it once occurred that someone who came to the Steipler on Nitel Nacht was surprised to see him learning. When that happened, the Steipler apologetically said that he had not been aware that it was Nitel Nacht. The author reports however, if the Steipler was learning in a place where no one would see him, he learned from a sefer. Additionally, the Steipler instructed him that in the future he was not to tell him that it was Nitel Nacht. The Steipler also reported that the Chazon Ish held it was forbidden to abandon one’s learning on Nitel Nacht.
FOLLOWING THE MINHAG
The Chidushei HaRim once related that a priest asked Rav Yonason Eibeshutz the following question: The Jews maintain that the whole world exists because of their Torah learning. If so, if no one is learning on Nitel Nacht, how does the world continue to function? Rav Eibshitz responded, minhag Yisroel Torah hi – keeping the Jewish customs is itself Torah! The custom of not learning is the Torah that keeps the world going.
There is another story related that a talmid chacham once found a great man learning on Nitel Nacht. In response to his visitor’s question as to why he was learning on that night, the great man answered, “I wanted to see what the gehenom of those who learn on nitel is like.” The talmid chacham retorted, “I am sure that there is no gehenom for learning on Nitel Nacht, but for belittling a minhag Yisroel there certainly is gehenom.” The great man accepted the rebuke and closed his sefer.