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Why Gelt? The Hanukkah gelt tradition past and present

12/09/2020 12:45:02 PM

Dec9

As we all can attest, Hanukkah gelt (chocolate-covered coins which are distributed during Hanukkah)  is not known for its quality.  For those who are chocolate connesseiurs, Hanukkah gelt pales in comparison to today’s luxury chocolate creations.  While Jewish holidays often revolve around the most tasty delicacies such as warm challah, piping hot matzah ball soup, or decadent blintzes, Hanukkah gelt falls far short. So where did the tradition of Hannukah gelt all begin and why is it still so popular?

There is no definitive theory as to the origins of Hanukkah gelt. (The word gelt means money in Yiddish.) Some believe that Hanukkah gelt  may have been a carry over from the custom of Purim as the Book of Esther describes Purim as an occasion “for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor” (Esther 9:22).  Popular legend also ties Hanukkah gelt to the miraculous Maccabean victory over the ancient Syrian-Greeks after which the Hasmonean descendants (from which the Maccabees were a part)  minted national coins, to celebrate their freedom.1 

Hanukkah gelt is also linked to an 18th century Eastern European tradition of recognizing religious school teachers with a token of gratitude around Hanukkah similar to today’s custom of offering a gratuity to our mail person during Christmas. These religious school teachers normally would not accept payment for teaching children Torah. Perhaps an exception was made during the festival of Hanukkah. The Hebrew root of Hanukkah is the same Hebrew root for education, hinuch, so there is a linguistic connection between tying Hanukkah and honoring or celebrating Jewish education. In time, the tradition of giving teachers gelt on Hanukkah became transferred to giving children gelt in place of or in addition to their teachers.2

In America, during the  decades following the Civil War, Hanukkah was considered a minor and unimportant festival by American Jews.  In the 1920’s, however, celebrating Hanukkah became an increasingly popular Jewish home observance.  Perhaps all of Hanukkah’s customs combined - playing dreidel, frying latkes, lighting Hanukkah menorahs, giving gelt -  became bright spots during the long, dark stretches of the calendar between the Days of Awe (Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur) and Passover as well as a concrete alternative to the dominant societal celebration of Christmas.3

With Hanukkah’s increasing popularity among American Jews, American candy companies like Loft’s first introduced gold and silver wrapped chocolate gelt in the 1920’s. Rabbi Deborah Prinz (who has researched the connections between Jews and Chocolate) has shown a similarity between Hanukkah chocolate gelt and the European Christmas tradition of exchanging gold-covered chocolate coins to commemorate the miracles of St. Nicholas.4  Candy companies tried to launch other type of chocolate Hanukkah-themed treats such as brightly colored Macabee soldiers (remember those?) and even a line of chocolate latkes.  However, it was chocolate gelt that was most popular among children and became the pieces and prizes during the playing of the dreidel game.

The history of gelt helps us understand why some families give children Hanukkah money in addition to or in place of gifts. The large-scale trend of exchanging gifts during Hanukkah became a custom in the 1950’s and primarily only in the United States. At this time, Jewish child psychologists as well as rabbis started promoting giving gifts as a  way to make children excited about Hanukkah and being Jewish rather than sad about being excluded from Christmas. Today, Jews all over the world celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the Hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), giving out gelt, playing dreidel and exchanging gifts. There are creative ways to include tzedakah (righteous giving) as part of Hanukkah gift exchanges, such as setting one night aside - such as the Shabbat of Chanukah - as a night to give a gift to a local charity.5 Our December Hanukkah Mitzvah challenge is another way to incorporate Jewish values during our Hanukkah celebrations.

Although Hanukkah gelt may not be famous for its’ gourmet taste, expressing gratitude to teachers and giving out gelt to bring children (and adults!)  joy are authentic traditions of Hanukkah. So this Hannukah, lets enjoy all the wonderful traditions of Hanukkah including sharing a little gelt and expressing gratitude to those we love and appreciate. 

1 Goodman, Philip. The Hanukkah Anthology. Jewish Publication Society : 1992, p. 268.

2 Koenig, Leah. “Deconstructing Chocolate Gelt,” The Forward. 12/11/2009. P. 2009., https://reformjudaism.org/jewish-holidays/hanukkah/who-invented-hanukkah-gelt

3 Ibid.

4https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/9-things-you-didnt-know-about-hanukkah/

5 A cherished family custom of Daniel and Carol Levin at TINW.

 

 

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