From the Rav’s Desk: Why we keep Nittel even today

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With all due respect what you are saying about not learning Torah on the night of December 25th is not true. The Rabanim poskined to not learn Torah for one reason. They were afraid of pogroms being carried out against Jews learning Torah together, during the non Jewish holiday when people get drunk and go crazy and run around in dangerous packs and groups of people. The original psak was based on pekuah nefesh. It has turned into an old wives tale that has been twisted in modern times to think that when goyim celebrate Jews should not learn Torah. It would G-D forbid be the equivalent of telling Jews not to learn Torah and not to light Chanukah candles when Chanukah falls out on the English calendar on Dec. 25th. There is simply zero halachic basis for this aside from the pekuah nefesh fear of attack.


As a general point, it is improper to negate the customs and rulings of large segments of Jewry, which include many Gedolei Haposkim and Tzadikim. Nonetheless, being that there are people who genuinely desire to understand the source behind the custom of why some do not learn Torah on the night of the 25th, we will therefore engage in a clarification on the subject: [To note, nowhere does anyone come to argue that all the Jewish people and all the sects should stop learning Torah on this night, and rather each community should follow their accepted custom. Thus, Sephardim who never accepted this custom may continue learning Torah on this night, as rules Rav Ovadia Yosef in Yabia Omer, and Ashkenazim who have accepted this custom may and should continue following it in accordance to their rabbinical leaders.]

First to state the historical facts of the origin of the custom and who followed it: The custom of not learning Torah and the night of 25 December dates back to the Shtetel in Europe and is many generations old and was not subject to a debate between Hasidim versus Lithuanian Jewry, as both Hasidim and non-Hasidim avoided learning Torah on this night as did their respective Torah Giants and leaders. So was the custom of many Gedolei Yisrael, including: Rav Yonason Eibashitz, Rav Yaakov Emden, Rav Yisrael Salanter, Maharsha, Maharam Schick and others. In most of these cities and times there was zero danger of pogroms against people continuing to learn Torah on this night, and certainly there was no danger involved in them learning at home, but nonetheless both Hasidim and non-Hasidim and their Torah leaders and Tzadikim avoided learning Torah on this night. Thus, there are many sects of Jewry led by great Torah scholars and Tzadikim of the current and previous generation who continue this custom until this very day and avoid learning Torah on the night of 25 December even though there is no danger and worry of pogroms. Thus, the only question that should be posed here is not whether they have a right to do what they are doing, as the mere fact that it is an old custom that is continued till today by large sects of Jewry and their Torah giants and Tzadikim is itself the source for its allowance and Minhag Yisrael Toreah Hi. Rather, the only valid question that can be raised is as to why they do what they are doing; what is the reason for not learning Torah on the night of 25 December? So, we will now engage in the reason behind this custom:

The reason behind the custom: One of the reasons recorded behind the custom for avoiding learning on the night of 25 December is because in previous times, the night of their festival was a time of danger for Jews to be out in public, and therefore they decreed that Jews should not go to the Beis Hamidrash on this night. However, this reason does not suffice to explain why Gedolei Yisrael continued to follow this custom of not learning Torah on this night even during times that there was no danger at all to do so and even in the privacy of one’s own home when there was certainly no danger involved. It also does not explain for what reason couples would be abstinent on this night even though it is taking place in the privacy of their homes and there was no danger involved at all. To quote from the Chasam Sofer in Igeres Sofrim 2: “Regarding that which I was asked of the custom of prohibiting Torah study on the night of their festival, I did not hear in accepted reason about this [i.e. the Chasam Sofer did not accept pogroms as the viable reason]. Also what I heard from one rabbi is not clear even though it has basis also from the fact that we close the Mikvas on this night….. However, it’s possible that our predecessors follow this custom in order not to give room for the Satan to prosecute against us, as being that on this night all the nations gather in their churches, while the Jewish people would be sleeping, therefore it became established to not learn Torah until midnight and rather learn Torah from midnight and onwards….” [See there in length for the Chasam Sofer’s offered explanation]


So, for this we have a complementary reason related by the Rebbe Rashab and recorded in other Chassidic and Chabad Sefarim, which is a reason according to mysticism, and is the deeper layer behind why God allowed to begin with for there to be a physical danger on this night and therefore cause the sages the decree not to go to the study hall. The reason is as follows: On this day of 25 December there is an extra abundance of impurity and a stronghold of Kelipa. For this reason, the Jews throughout the generations took various customs upon themselves which are followed until this day, in order to diminish the spiritual power of the impurity. The reason that Torah learning is avoided, is because we do not want to add vitality to the impure spirit that exists on this day. In the Sefer Darkei Chaim Veshalom it is told of a certain Gadol Beyisrael who learned on this night, and his learning attracted a dog to the home, hence symbolizing the nurture of Kelipa from one’s Torah learning. It is also due to this reason that intimacy is avoided between couples on this night, as the side of evil can cause souls that are flagged with impurity to be born to the couples, and as recorded in Sefarim, many Poshei Yisrael were born from mothers who conceived on this night.

This concept of our holy Torah being prohibited from being studied due to impurity, and possible nurture of the Kelipos from the holiness contained within the Torah being learned, finds precedence in both Halacha and Kabbalah:

  • The prohibition to learn Torah in the bathroom: It is biblically forbidden to study Torah and the bathroom even if one is having a bathroom attack and needs to remain there for many hours and even if one got locked in the bathroom irrelevant for how much time, nonetheless it is biblically forbidden to her to learn there. The mystical reason for this is because a bathroom is a place where the evil spirits reside and learning in a bathroom gives them nurture from holiness, and thus not only does one’s Torah learning in such a place not banish the evil spirit but it actually gives them power. The same way that we prohibit learning Torah in an area called a bathroom, so too we avoid learning Torah at a time that is “the bathroom of the world” when the evil spirits are out celebrating and waiting to nurture from a Jews Torah learning.
  • The prohibition to learn Torah before washing hands in the morning: According to the Zohar, and so was the final ruling of the Poskim, it is forbidden to study Torah upon awakening in the morning prior to washing due to the evil spirit that resides on the hands. Thus, once again we see that the presence of the evil spirits negates Torah study due to the reason that they end up nurturing from it.
  • During mourning and the ninth of Av: It is forbidden to study Torah during days of mourning and on the ninth of Av, with exception to specific subjects, and according to some authorities there is even no obligation of learning Torah on these days even in the permitted subjects. Thus, we see that there are time periods in which Torah study is regulated.

From all the above we can conclude that the age-old European custom of not learning Torah on 25 December even in the private of one’s home and when there is no worry of danger involved, has strong precedent in other areas of Jewish law and mysticism and therefore those who follow it certainly are not doing anything wrong and on the contrary are upholding a Minhag Yisrael Torah Hi. Furthermore, being that one is supposed to use this time to perform other constructive activities which would anyways take time away from Torah study [as explained in our corresponding article, based on the Chasam Sofer and talks of the Rebbe], it therefore ends up that even according to the revealed aspects of Torah there is no question here of Bittul Torah, the same way it is not considered Bittul Torah for one to take a shower or clean his home and do other activities of basic living. What one is meant to do in the night of 25 December is to schedule for necessary mundane activities to be done at that time instead of Torah learning.

There is a story recorded with Rav Yisrael Salanter regarding his being careful not to learn Torah on this night and how he would keep his watch to look at the exact time that it is forbidden to learn in which case he and his Chavrusa would close their Gemaras and perform other activities. As I heard in the name of one Gadol Beyisrael from the Lithuanian sects of Jewry as to how he put it when asked about the custom: One thing I know for sure, whether you learn Torah on the night of 25 December and whether you don’t, if you are following the custom of your forefathers you have upon what to rely and may continue your custom. However, those who spend their time negating and disqualifying the others custom they have no one upon whom to rely, at least not in the Jewish religion, although they may certainly rely upon the descendants of Eisav who are known for causing strife and discord amongst communities and live off of it.

Everyone should respect the customs of other sects of Jewry and Gedolei Yisrael, and instead of placing effort to disqualify and negate other communities and their customs they should instead focus on their own personal growth, and ways that they can unite the Jewish community in all the many matters that we hold in common.

Sources: See Chasam Sofer 7:31; Makor Chaim of Chavos Yair 155; Darkei Chaim Veshalom 828; Hayom Yom 17th Teves; Sefer Hasichos 1990 1:192; Reshimos Hayoman p. 313, 365; Hisvadyus 5750 2 p. 49; Likkutei Sichos 14:554; 15:545; Igros Kodesh 13:120; 14:352; See Nitei Gavriel Chanukah p. 385; Taharas Yisrael 197:2-3; Darkei Chaim Veshalom 825; Beir Moshe 4:69; Piskeiy Teshuvos 240:10; Shulchan Menachem 6:242; Igros Kodesh 4:424; Taharah Kehalacha 21; Yabia Omer Y.D. 7:20 [defends the practice of the Sephardim to continue learning Torah on this night, and brings down the reasons for why the Ashkenazim do not do so.]

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