Question. Why do medieval texts think the Jew is a devil?
Answer. Joshua Trachtenberg analyses the story in his book, “The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism”, 1943.
He makes it clear that whoever did not believe in Jesus was considered to belong to the devil. Though the early Christians were Jewish, there developed a view, e.g. in the Gospel of John, that the devil was the father of the
Jews; the book of Revelation called a Jewish place of worship a synagogue of Satan.
Neither Satan nor the devil was mere metaphors; the medieval church took them literally and personified the Jews as diabolical or satanic. The belief was that the devil had a stench, therefore the Jew smelt. Satan had horns and an ugly beard: so did the Jew.
Some literalists of our own day are still steeped in these medieval superstitions and no amount of rational explanation or persuasion helps and even Muslim propaganda utilises this primitive thinking. Fortunately there are many moderates within both groups who are adamant that primitive prejudice must go.
Question. Is it true that some Jews call 24 December “Nittel”?
Answer. 24/25 December do not figure in the official Jewish calendar. Christians of course regard 25 December as the birthday of Jesus (though there is a scholarly debate about the correctness of this date).
“Nittel” probably derives from a Latin word for “birth” and medieval Christians who were on the way to midnight mass may have used the occasion to attack Jews, as they did at Easter time. It was safer for Jews not to venture out that evening, not even to go to the Bet Midrash. Hence the suggestion that “Nittel” stands for “Nicht Torah Lernen” (“No Torah Study”).
G-D OR GOD?
Question. Why do some people write “G-d” instead of “God”?
Answer. Actually no phrase is good enough to express the Creator’s full greatness. The Torah (Ex. 15:11) calls Him “nora tehillot” – “awesome in praises”, which Rashi explains as meaning “that people are afraid to praise You, lest it be insufficient”. So whatever way we address God is only an attempt.
From the Torah (Deut. 12:3-4) we learn that it is forbidden to erase the name of God. Hence, anything containing the Divine name must be treated with respect and not erased, destroyed or discarded. Worn-out religious texts and scrolls are therefore saved and eventually given reverent burial.
In strict law the prohibition is limited to the actual names of God in Hebrew (Shach on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 179:11, 276) but not to renderings in other languages such as Gott in German or God in English. However, many authorities extend the law to cover Divine names in any language, which is how the practice of writing “G-d” began; if something bearing this defective spelling is discarded it is not viewed as seriously as if the full spelling is used.
The practice I employ is to write simply “G” in notes, etc., but in books and articles I spell the word in full – “God”, “Lord”, etc.
The Rema prohibits writing words such as “Shalom”, since God is the Lord of Peace (YD 276, end), but if the word is written in a secular sense and not as a reference to God, it may be written normally (Pit’chei T’shuvah). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Ig’rot Moshe, YD 2:138) warns against writing “Bet-Hey” at the top of a page since “Hey” is a hint of a Divine Name; it is better to use “Bet-Samech-Dalet”, which stands for “With the help of Heaven”.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.