Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday with several fun traditions that are always anticipated by children and adults alike. One that most children look forward to eagerly is receiving Hanukkah gelt, or money.
Chocolate coins wrapped in silver or gold foil are given out at Hanukkah, much to the kids’ delight and adults too for that matter.
The original Jewish custom is to give “Chanukah gelt” (money) rather than presents. There are a number of reasons given for this practice:
We read in the Talmud that the Chanukah lights are sacred and may not be used for any other purpose. The example given here is that one may not count money by the candlelight. Giving out Chanukah money—and not counting it near the menorah—is a way to remember and exercise this rule.
When discussing what a poor man is to do if he does not have enough money to purchase both Chanukah candles and kiddush wine, the Talmud states that Chanukah lights take precedence because they serve to publicize the miracle. The widespread custom of giving Chanukah gelt enabled the poor to get the money they needed for candles without feeling shame.
The Hebrew word Chanukah shares the same root as chinuch, “education.” The occupying Greek forces were determined to force Hellenism upon the Jewish population, at the expense of the ideals and commandments of the holy Torah. Unfortunately, they were quite successful in their endeavor. After the Greeks were defeated, it was necessary to re-educate the Jews—to reintroduce a large part of the population to Torah values. Appropriately, during Chanukah, it is customary to give gelt to children as a reward for Torah study.
There is also a deeper reason for this age-old custom. In his record of the Chanukah events, Maimonides writes: “The Greeks laid their hands upon the possessions of Israel.” The Greeks invaded the possessions of Israel in the same spirit in which they defiled the oil in the Holy Temple. They did not destroy the oil; they defiled it. They did not rob the Jewish people; they attempted to infuse their possessions with Greek ideals so that they are used for egotistical and ungodly purposes, rather than for holy pursuits. Chanukah gelt celebrates the freedom and mandate to channel material wealth toward spiritual ends.
The Hebrew word Hanukkah shares its root with another Hebrew word, “Hanukkah,” which means “education.” Parents would give their children money on Hanukkah as a way of educating them about the importance and value of education. The children would take their money to the school and give it to their teachers as a sort of holiday bonus. This helped teachers get by on their salaries and helped teach children to appreciate their education. Parents would also give their children some extra gelt to keep for themselves as a reward for doing well in school. In this way, children learned saw immediate rewards from their studies and were encouraged to work harder.
According to Rabbi A. P. Bloch: “The custom had its origin in the 17th-century practice of Polish Jewry to give money to their small children for distribution to their teachers.”
“In time, as children demanded their due, money was also given to children to keep for themselves.”
“The rabbis approved of the custom of giving money on Chanukah because it publicized the story of the miracle of oil,”