It's one of the most popular traditions of one of the most well known holidays of the year. But the authentic reasons behind the giving of Chanukah gelt — the Yiddish term for money — can leave most people scratching their heads. Today we'll explore some Chanukah gelt traditions from the World Wide Web.
According to Ohr Somayach — www.ohr.org.il/ask/ask173.htm#Q5 — Chanukah gelt is a Jewish custom rooted in the Talmud: "The Talmud states that even a very poor person must light Chanukah lights, even if he can't afford it. A person with no money is required to go 'knocking on doors' until he collects enough to buy at least one candle for each night of Chanukah. The Torah concept of charity — tzedakah — requires us to help the recipient in the most dignified manner possible. Therefore, the custom arose to give gifts of money during Chanukah so that someone who needs extra money for Chanukah candles can receive it in the form of 'Chanukah Gelt.'"
Eliezer Segal traces the evolution of the tradition in "Gelt to Gifts: A Chanukah Journey," at www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/961121_Geltl.html Because of the similarities of the words "Chanukah" (dedication) and chinukh (education), some Jewish communities used the Chanukah season as the time to honor their religious teachers and students.
In 18th century Eastern Europe, rabbis toured outlying villages during Chanukah to strengthen the townsfolk's Jewish education. Initially, these rabbis would decline payment. But eventually they would accept tokens of appreciation for lost time. In time, these gifts or gelt became almost obligatory to the rabbis, to other pillars of the community, and then in the 19th century, to children. Other traditions of giving coins or small gifts to kids have also been found in Persia, Yemen and pre-state Israel.
Segal concludes his essay with this comment: "Needless to say, an immense gulf separates the customs described here from the shopping frenzy that is associated with the North American Chanukah."
If you do opt to give gifts, JewishFamily.com — www.jflmail.com/articles/587.html
— has some suggestions to keep your spending and nerves under control. Instead of trying to compete with the seasonal frenzy, Lisa Traiger says you should look for low-key Jewish-oriented gifts to bring Chanukah — and your kids — back to the roots. Some suggestions: Jewish books, music, dreidels, puzzles, crafts, and of course, gelt.
According to the Jewish Outreach Institute, there is another direct connection between gelt and the story of Chanukah. After the Temple was recaptured, the Jewish population was able to mint coins as an expression of their newly won independence. After the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., Jewish coinage ended except for a brief period during the Bar Kochva Revolution.
But all that changed when the state of Israel revived the tradition, according to an essay at www.joi.org/celebrate/hanuk/gelt.shtml "In a brilliantly conceived move to link the modern world with the ancient history of our people, the first Chanukah coin portrayed exactly the same menorah that had appeared on the Last Maccabean coins of Antigonus Matityahu, 1,998 years earlier."
You can view drawings of some original coins on the American Israel Numismatic Association Web site at http://amerisrael.com/articles_chanukah_gelt_4.html And to look at some of the modern Chanukah coins minted in Israel, visit the Commemoratives International site. The Connecticut-based company operates a large Web site which has pictures of the beautiful Chanukah coins minted by Israel since 1958. It's at www.commem.com/prod04.htm
Nowadays, most gelt exchanged at Chanukah isn't made of genuine gold or silver but of chocolate. Many of our fond memories for those bags of coins can be traced to Israel's Elite chocolate company, which has an impressive Hebrew-only site at www.elite.co.il/
For the homemade touch, you can try some Surprise Chanukah Gelt at http://shlk.com/222 or why not mint your chocolate coins — with hint of mint? There's a recipe at http://shlk.com/224
But for some real authenticity, how about a batch of Chanukah Gelt Cookies? But be careful because these treats have "real" gelt inside. The recipe is at http://shlk.com/223
The Cyber-Kitchen site also has a recipe for White Cheesecake decorated with Chanukah gelt. Sounds good but just not decadent enough? Then try out the Chanukah Gelt Double Fudge Chocolate Layer Cake at www.jewish-food.org/recipes/geltcake.htm
Of course, you do have eight days to finish it off, but that shouldn't be a problem.