Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Jews And Their Gelt

So, it's night #4 with Hanukkah, and you may still be wondering what to get that Jewish friend of yours. Well, you've still got time. And I'm here to tell you - the traditional gift is...a money.

That's right, the standard item that's seemingly always been given to kids is coins or money, known in Yiddish as Gelt (the word for money). I don't recall ever hearing a good reason for this, and so this year, I decided I'd do a bit of investigation on the topic. Here's what I learned.

  • Giving money is fairly old tradition. It's documented as far back as 1683, which isn't half bad.
  • It's pretty clear that the notion of kids getting Hanukkah gifts is based on original concept of giving gelt, plus the influence of Christmas. I guess I have my Christian neighbors to thank for all those goodies my parents got me.
  • Somewhere along the lines, someone came up with the idea that you could make chocolate coins, hence the common tradition of giving chocolate gelt. With the way our economy is, the chocolate gelt is probably worth more than a handful of coins it represents.
  • This year there was a recall of chocolate gelt due to potential melamine tainting.
  • Like a number of Jewish customs, we understand that the tradition has been around for some time - yet the exact reason for this tradition isn't known. You might think this would be a problem. But, in fact, it gives creative license to Rabbis and others to examine the tradition for what you can learn from it, rather than pigeon-holing the tradition into one specific meaning. Here are some explanations for giving gelt:
    • Wikipedia suggests the tradition evolved out of a tradition of parents giving money to their student's teachers, with the students eventually holding onto the cash. Or, they suggest giving out money was a way to raise Hanukkah awareness (think an early, and effective, marketing campaign).
    • Chabad talks about how Chanukah gelt celebrates the freedom and mandate to channel material wealth toward spiritual ends.
    • talks about how Chanukah gelt represents our potential for a good future, even when there's war, bloodshed and other terrible things around us
    • Harav Nosson Dovid Rabinowich suggests that the gelt is a reward and inspiration for good behavior from children
    The beautiful part is that all the above opinions are to some degree right.
  • Gelt, especially the chocolate kind, is handy to have around for the gambling game of dreidel. Though, playing the game is a topic of a future blog post, no doubt.
  • Finally, for just a good laugh, I suggest you read this cute story. It's not about Chanukah gelt per se - just the chocolate coins. But still, it's quite funny.

Here's to a year of prosperity and learning. Oh, and we should all have plenty of gelt.

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