Today, Slate discussed Nittel Nacht, the unofficial Jewish “holiday” that takes place on Christmas Eve. Jews celebrate Nittel Nacht, according to the article, by avoiding Torah study, lest the spiritual joy it produces rub off on nearby Christians. Instead, Jews play games like chess (or dreidel—some scholars believe Hanukkah’s proximity to December 24th explains the spinning top’s origins), pre-rip their weekly Shabbat toilet paper, or generally do anything other than study religious texts.
In this month’s Text/Context—a joint production of The New York Jewish Week and Tablet Magazine parent Nextbook—Moshe Sokolow also offered the Nittel Nacht basics. He traces its origins to 200 C.E., when Jews were barred from trading with Gentiles on Gentile holidays for fear that commercial success would enhance their false celebration. So, instead, you play games:
It may be only a coincidence that card playing is first noted among Jews in 1415, around the time that Nittel is first mentioned, but, once introduced, card playing, like all games of chance, cast an addictive spell over European Jewry. Numerous communal attempts to ban the practice succeeded only in abating it, with exemptions formally granted on minor festive occasions including Rosh Chodesh (new moon), Chanukah, and Purim. It was also specifically sanctioned on Christmas.
So Jews have the Christians to thank for their love of gin and mah-jongg. Merry Christmas, indeed!
A Nittel Debate [Text/Context]
The Little-Known Jewish Holiday of Christmas Eve. Seriously. [Slate]
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.