Author Archives: Rabbi Joshua E. Plaut

About Rabbi Joshua E. Plaut

Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD is Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical Center, representing Israel's premier hospital in the USA. He is a historian, photo-ethnographer, and cultural anthropologist, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Silent Night: Being Jewish at Christmas Time in America: Proclaiming Identity in the Face of Seasonal Marginality.

Eastern European Jews & Christmas

Jews in Eastern Europe generally spent Christmas Eve and Day in the safety of their homes. In certain places, Christian authorities actually prohibited Jews from appearing in public places during the Christian high holidays, so Jewish schools and synagogues were closed. In other places, Christians attacked Jews on Christmas, thus staying home was encouraged for security reasons. Fearing that Jewish students would be attacked on the way to study, rabbis prohibited Jewish students from leaving home to study Torah. Torah study was also prohibited because Jesus, in his youth, engaged in religious study; thus the medieval rabbis prohibited the activity lest it lend merit to Jesus. 

Tales of Jesuschess and cards

Over the centuries Jews developed customary Christmas activities. Certain East European Jews covertly read Ma’se Talui (The Tales of the Crucifix), a secret scroll containing derogatory versions of the birth of Jesus. Such legends are part of a genre of Jewish legends called Toledot Yeshu (History of Jesus). These legends first appeared in Hebrew in the thirteenth century (with possible earlier renditions written in Aramaic) and circulated in different versions throughout the Middle Ages. Toledot Yeshu describes Jesus as the illegitimate son of Mary by the Roman soldier Panthera. According to these tales, Jesus’ powers derived from black magic, and his death was a shameful one.

Cards & Chess

Christmas was also a popular time for Jewish card playing, which stands out in light of traditional rabbinic condemnation of gambling and betting. Indeed, in the Middle Ages many measures were devised to suppress card playing, including communal restrictions (takanot), and literary satires.

According to Israel Abrahams in his book Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, some Jews took personal vows to abstain from card playing. Examples of such oaths exist in most ethical and ritual books dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century. One example reads as follows:

“May this be for a good memory, Amen! At the twenty-third hour of the beginning of April, 1491, the undersigned received upon himself by oath on the Ten Commandments that he would not play any game, nor incite another to play for him, with the exception of draughts or chess, and this oath shall have force for ten full years.”

Jews & Christmas

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For the majority of Americans, December 25 is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but for Jews it is a time to consider ones relationship to the wider society. Some Jews have chosen to adopt the Yuletide festivities. Some have emphatically rejected the rituals and symbols of Christmas. Still others have sought ways to meld Christmas and Hanukkah. Christmas, in effect, has become a prism through which Jews can view how living in this land of freedom has shaped our religion, culture, and identity.

Background: Europe

For centuries, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe feared Christmas-time. At any other time, pious Jews would be studying Torah in the synagogue, but not on Christmas. Wary of being attacked in the street, they took refuge in their homes, playing cards or chess with their families.

christmas treeThe story was different in Western Europe, where, for the Jewish elite, holiday symbols — such as the Christmas tree — signified secular inclusion in society. Affluent German Jews often posed for portraits with their extended families in front of elaborately decorated Christmas trees. The Viennese socialite Fanny Arnstein, a co-founder of the Music Society of Austria, was among the first Jews to introduce a Christmas tree into the home, an act also practiced by none other than the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Indeed, after Herzl completed his seminal book on Zionism in 1895, Vienna’s Chief Rabbi visited him at his home during the month of December. This historically significant meeting took place with a Christmas tree in view.

In Berlin, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, grew up in a home that celebrated Christmas “with roast goose or hare, a decorated Christmas tree which my mother bought at the market by St. Peter’s Church, and the big distribution of presents for servants, relatives, and friends…An aunt who played the piano treated our cook and servant girl to ‘Silent Night, Holy Night.'” These celebrations, Scholem believed, reflected the view that Christmas was “a German national festival, in the celebration of which we joined not as Jews but as Germans.” As a young adult, Scholem would reject his family’s celebration and, instead, attend a Maccabee ball for single Jews in Berlin–a matchmaking idea that has as its modern counterpart the Matzo Ball, a party for Jewish singles held in cities throughout North America.