INTRODUCTION: This article stems from some wonderful, lively discussion around a post on Facebook about what not to ask Jews at Christmas. The comments and inquiries were sincere and thought provoking; so much so, that it was felt that this would be the best place to answer those, as well as the original questions. We trust that this will be of interest to those that follow the Jewish Roots of Christianity.
Here is the original post from Facebook:
Ten questions not to ask Jews this time of year:
1. I know you’re Jewish, but you do have have a Christmas tree, right?
2. But you had one growing up, right?
3. Then what did you put your presents under on Christmas morning?
4. Does that mean you don’t get presents?
5. So how *do* you celebrate Christmas?
6. Do you at least eat a Christmas ham?
7. You must be envious of everyone that *does* celebrate Christmas, right?
8. Don’t you feel really left out that you’re missing out on all the fun?
9. Don’t you wish you had holidays and special food to look forward to?
10. But Chanukah is like a Jewish Christmas, right?
Here are 4 of the comments and questions that were posted which we will attempt to answer below:
“Hahaha to #9…how many holidays and how much special food we have!”
“I once got that “everyone” celebrates Christmas because it’s not a religious holiday.”
“Why not ask these questions? I didn’t have the privilege to grow up around a Jewish community, I don’t know the answers to a lot of these questions. There are more subtle ways to ask some of the questions, sure, but I hope someone who’s genuinely interested and not intending any offence wouldn’t be judged for just trying to understand someone else’s experience at this time of year.”
“The real question is what do you ask Messianic Jews??”
The answers to these questions are as diverse as Jews themselves!
Two Jews, Three Opinions
First of all, it is impossible to speak of “the Jews” — both in Biblical times as now, as a homogeneous group with unified beliefs.
In the New Covenant (Testament) when “the Jews” are referred to, Scripture identifies which Jews were being spoken of; whether they are Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, or ordinary Jews who followed Yeshua (Jesus) from the Galilee, the Decopolis, Judea and Samaria and from beyond the Jordan (Matt. 4) .
It is very important for Christians to keep this in mind when studying the teachings of Jesus or of Paul, because the things that they said were to a specific group for a specific reason. Reading “up” in a passage to find “which Jews” where being spoken to is required to understand what was being said, and as importantly what was not being said.
It is equally impossible to speak of “the Jews” today as if they were a homogeneous group.
Jews range from Orthodox to secular — and everything in between and within each category there are many subgroups. As well, there is a great deal of variation as to how each group would define itself as well as how it would define other groups of Jews — or whether some of those “others” would be even be considered “Jews” (such as Kairaites or Messianic Jews).
The expression “two Jews, three opinions” captures this well.
To begin to comprehend how “Jews” would answer the above questions, requires knowing a little bit about the different sects of Jews and what they believe relative to each other.
Here is a brief sketch of the main sects of Jews;
The term Orthodox Jews is synonymous with the term Rabbinic Judaism and originated with the biblical Pharisees. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Pharisees who had already established and led and taught in the synagogues were the only group who retained their influence. The Essenes and Nazarenes (term for the first “Messianic Jews”) were considered “heretics”. For the first 3 generations after the death of Yeshua (Jesus), the Jewish believers were still able to attend the traditional synagogue but in 72-73 CE (40 years after Jesus’ death), the addition of the Birkat ha-Minim forced the Jewish believers from the traditional synagogue.
[see the section on the “Blessing” of the Heretics” in the previous post titled “The Temple and synagogue in the Early Church”: http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/the-temple-synagogue-in-the-early-church/]
The Orthodox Jews of today includes the Masorti (traditional Orthodox), the Chasidim (one form of “black hat” Jews including the Lubavitch and Breslov that originated in Eastern Europe in the 1700s), and the Israeli Haredi (also “black hat” Jews, non-zionists — believing only Messiah can establish Israel) and Dati (modern Orthodox, zionist).
Simplistically put, Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah has two parts — the “Written Law” (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) that was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, along with the “Oral Law” needed to understand and practice them. The “Oral Law”, as the name implies, was originally not written down, but is said to have been passed down from Moses, and from there from father to son, and from teacher to disciple. “Oral Law” dictates everything from the wearing of phylacteries (tefillin) and the colour of their straps, to how many walls and the size of those walls, required to build a Sukkah (booth for the Feast of Tabernacles).
Halakhah (literally “the path that one walks“) is the complete body of rules and practices that Jews are to follow, including Biblical commandments and the commandments instituted by the rabbis, based on “Oral Torah”.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Rabbinic authorities were concerned that the “Oral Law” would be forgotten, so it was written down in the form of the Mishnah, a shorthanded collection of the oral teachings. That is, the “Oral Law” was “oral” from 70 CE until 190 CE (2nd century after Yeshua’s (Jesus’ death), when the Mishnah was completed.
It was believed by the rabbis that important information was missing from the Mishnah, so this material was compiled in the Gemara (also spelled Gemorra), which comprises rabbinical commentaries on the Mishnah. The Gemarra includes the Melchilta (exegesis on the Book of Exodus) , Safra (exegesis on the Book of Leviticus), Sifri (exegesis on verses in Numbers and Deuteronomy) as well as the Beraisos (commentaries on the Mishnah) and Tosefta (an appendix to the Mishnah).
The Talmud, is the compendium of Jewish law and thought, including the Mishnah and the Gamara.
Regardless of the sect they come from, Orthodox Jews recognize the authority of both the Written Law and Oral Law. How those are interpreted and expressed, may vary however between the different groups of Orthodox.
Reform Jews do not believe that the Torah, even the Written Law, was given by God. For the most part, they seek to practice the ethics and values of Judaism without any obligation to God. As such, they do not seek to practice the commandments attributed to God in the first five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or Halakhah.
Conservative Jews grew out of the tension between Orthodox and Reformed Judaism and began as an American movement in the early 1900s. They generally accept the binding nature of Halakhah, but believes that the Law should change and adapt — absorbing some of the practices of the predominant culture around them, while remaining true to Judaism’s values and ethics.
The Kairaites — literally “people of the Scripture” originated with the Sadducees. As mentioned above, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Pharisees who established, led and taught in the synagogues were the only group with influence. The Kairaites do not accept the concept of “Oral Law” given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai along with the “Written Law”. They only recognize the written Law, as recorded in the first five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). The Kairaites distinguish themselves from the Rabbanites (Rabbinical Judaism, derived from the Pharisees) and believe it is their responsibility to study the written text in Hebrew and to interpret the texts of Scripture, without rabbinical interpretation.
The first thing to know about Messianic Jews is that they are Jews. Messianic Jews did not ‘convert’ to Christianity. Like the Nazarenes of the first century (i.e. Paul, Matthew, Mark, etc.) who were referred to as the ‘Jews that believe’, Messianic Jews believe that God’s promised Messiah has come. Many Messianic Jews, like the early Jewish believers of Scripture, continue to set themselves apart as Jews, a distinct people, because God called the Jewish people to.
Torah-observant Messianic Jews don’t follow the Law because it will “save” them, but because God called them to. While this may come as a surprise to some Christians, Jesus followed the Law. While this may be obvious once it is thought about, He followed the commands of Moses (not the “Oral Law” of the Pharisees) and had He not, He would have been committing sin and would no longer have been the Lamb without blemish.
It is also important to understand that what He taught was not different than what was taught in the Law of the Old Covenant (Testament). If it was, He would have been a false prophet, not the Messiah.
Likewise, He didn’t give ‘new meaning‘ to what was taught in the Law as that would have been causing us to rebel against God and His commands; a most grievous sin.
Yeshua (Jesus) not only upholds the Law but speaks of the Law’s continued relevance and practice to Jews in the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount. If one “reads up” from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew to see “who” He was speaking to, it says! He was speaking to the ordinary Jews who followed Him there from the Galilee, the Decopolis, Judea and Samaria and from beyond the Jordan (Matthew. 4).
To these ordinary Jews He said;
“anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
It should come as no surprise that many Messianic Jews are Torah-observant. Messiah was.
Questions and Answers
Perhaps now it is easier to see that depending which sect of Jews are asked, the answers to the above questions will be very different!
To Orthodox Jews, Christmas is a Gentile holiday. God in His Law commands the Jews not to follow the practice of the nations around us, so while they would have no issue with Gentiles celebrating it, Christmas and anything to do with it are foreign practices. Conservative Jews would hold a similar position. Reform Jews don’t believe that the Scriptures were inspired by God, so anything attributed to God is not binding. They would have no issue with decorating a tree or celebrating the secular version of Christmas — with Santa Clause and mistletoe. Since Kairaites follow the written Law, they would not follow any of the practices of the nations around them. That said, they would have no issue with Gentile Christians celebrating it. Torah-observing Messianic Jews are not that different from Kairaites, except that they believe Messiah has already come. Most Messianic Jews would not have any problem with Gentile Christians celebrating Christmas in whatever way they wish, including Christmas trees and ham! While we certainly can’t speak for “all” Messianic Jews, we can say how we view Christmas. We believe that Yeshua (Jesus) was born during Sukkot (see previous blogs) and we commemorate His coming to “tabernacle” among us, during the Feast of Tabernacles. We are fine with Gentile Christian celebrating their Savior’s birth at Christmas and take no issue with them having Christmas trees, or mistletoe or Christmas hams. There is nothing in Scripture defining what Gentile Christians can do or eat, outside of Acts 15 (see previous blog).
We mean no offense to our Gentile Christian brothers and sisters by not having a Christmas tree and we hope they will understand that God called the Jewish people not to follow the ways of the nations around us, so we don’t.
For His own reasons, God called us to be a distinct nation and a peculiar people and we choose to honor Him by maintaining the Jewish practice and observance that He called us to. We are not better for not doing so, just distinct.
As Messianic Jews, raised in Jewish families, here are our answers to the ten questions:
1. I know you’re Jewish, but you do have have a Christmas tree, right? nope
2. But you had one growing up, right? nope
3. Then what did you put your presents under on Christmas morning? Since we didn’t celebrate Christmas we didn’t get any presents on Christmas morning. So we didn’t need to put the presents we didn’t get under anything.
4. Does that mean you don’t get presents? On Chanukah (which falls at different times relative to Christmas each year because ours is a lunar calendar), our parents would give us a gift of money and chocolate coins.
5. So how *do* you celebrate Christmas? We don’t. We commemorate the birth of Messiah at Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles).
6. Do you at least eat a Christmas ham? nope. We do not eat pork because God listed a few foods in His Law that were “to be unclean to us” (not that they are inherently unclean). Since pigs do not have a cloven hoof and chew the cud, we don’t eat pork.
7. You must be envious of everyone that *does* celebrate Christmas, right? nope. We have so many holidays that God called us as a people to observe “from generation to generation” that we are not in the least bit envious that you celebrate Christmas. Actually, we feel a little “bad” that Gentile Christians only have Christmas and Easter.
8. Don’t you feel really left out that you’re missing out on all the fun? nope. We have many holiday and special foods and observances. If you are would to include us in your celebrations, please feel free to invite us, but please don’t mind if we don’t eat the ham.
9. Don’t you wish you had holidays and special food to look forward to? nope. We are still recovering from all the food from the several Fall Festivals and have 8 days of sufganiyot (Israeli donuts) and potato latkes (fried potato ‘pancakes’) to eat during Chanukah. Then we have a bit of time to recover before Passover and the Feast of Unleavened bread. We have no shortage of holidays and special food.
10. But Chanukah is like a Jewish Christmas, right? nope. It is a commemoration of when the Jews, led by the Maccabee brothers defeated the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV (~ 165 BCE) after he had plundered the Jewish Temple of its gold objects of worship then and desecrated it by sacrificing a pig on its alter. As sons of Mattityahu, who was a priest, the Maccabee brothers were also Levites and therefore permitted to rededicate the Temple after it was cleansed, but once the flame was lit, it had to remain lit. But there was only enough oil for one night and it would take another 8 days to make new oil for the Temple. They lit the flame anyways, and went about making the new oil. The miracle that occurred on Chanukah (called the Feast of Dedication, in English) is that the tiny bit of oil that was only enough to burn for ONE night, lasted EIGHT nights — long enough for the new oil to be ready. So we commemorate that “a great miracle happened there”, by lighting an 8-branched Chanukiah and eating foods fried in oil, such as sufganiot and latkes.
Did you know that Chanukah (the Feast of Dedication) is mentioned in the New Covenant (Testament)?
“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple courts in Solomon’s Colonnade.”
With respect to asking questions about another person’s culture or practices, from our experience, it’s best to ask open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions, such as the ones above can be perceived as judgmental, as the one asking them presumes that the reference point is there own — that “everyone” celebrates Christmas.
Here are some open-ended ways to ask Jews you meet what, if anything they do at this time of year. These would likely be welcomed by just about any Jew — from the most observant to the most secular;
1. I know you’re Jewish so I’m curious if Jews put up Christmas trees.
2. Did you have one growing up?
3. Do Jews get presents at Christmas, and if so, do they put them under that Jewish candelabra thingy…what’s it called?
4. Do Jews give presents to their children or to each other on Chanukah?
5. Why do Jews not celebrate Christmas?
6. Do you eat any of the holiday foods we eat at Christmas time, like ham?
7. Were you ever envious of everyone that *does* celebrate Christmas?
8. Do you ever feel really left out that you’re missing out on all the things we do at Christmas?
9. Do you have other holidays and special food to look forward to on those holidays
10. I’ve always wondered, is Chanukah sort of like a Jewish Christmas?
No, not “everyone” celebrates Christmas and even to some of those that do, it’s not always a religious holiday.
To many, it is about getting and decorating a tree, about giving presents to kids and blaming it on a fat guy in red underwear and drinking rich alcoholic drinks and eating foods that have no affiliation to any religious observance.
As correctly pointed out in the Facebook discussion, the real St. Nicholas made a point of secret gift-giving.
To observant Christians, while their celebrations may have some of the above, the main focus is on celebrating the birth of their Savior (whether or not they believe that occurred on December 25th, or not). It is an occasion with deep theological significance, as well as a time to gather with friends and family.
We understand the idea of a holiday being tied to the “commemoration” of an event, as this is very much a part of every one of the Biblical holidays, so whether December 25th is actually the date of the incarnation or not, we understand the importance of commemorating that the Messiah was at one point, a very real human baby. There are “Christmas carols” about “sweet baby Jesus” and the little baby “asleep in the manger”, but He did not remain a helpless baby — and someday, when His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, He will not be a helpless baby, but the ruling Messiah come to judge the world.
There is a day spoken of by Zechariah, the prophet — after the nations of the world come against Jerusalem, where the Scripture say;
“Then the Lord will go out to fight against those nations as He fights on a day of battle. On that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east”
“On that day there will be no light; the sunlight and moonlight will diminish. It will be a day known only to Yahweh, without day or night, but there will be light at evening”
Zechariah 14:3-4, 6-7
Yes, He came as a baby, but He is returning as Messiah and King.
To you and yours, we wish you and wonderful and meaningful Christmas...
...and from our house to yours, Happy Chanukah!