Eastern European Jews & Christmas

A day to play games and avoid Torah study.

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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."

Few of these strictures proved effective. Despite widely held views about gambling for money, the rabbis permitted games of chance during the long nights of Hanukkah, Purim, the intermediary days of Passover and Sukkot, and Rosh Hodesh. Generally, the rabbis frowned upon card playing in the sukkah. However, in acknowledging that people would not sit in the sukkah unless permitted such entertainment, this stricture was also relaxed.

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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.