Starting on Thanksgiving and continuing through most of the month of December, our neighborhood Trader Joe’s store in Manhattan sets out harvest baskets near the check-out line that are filled with mesh bags containing “coins of the world.” These bags sell for $1.99 each and contain milk chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Anyone in the know would recognize that these generic “Coins of the World” are, in actuality, Hanukkah gelt in disguise. Hanukkah gelt, an American Jewish tradition, has entered popular culture. For one hundred years, Jewish children have associated Hanukkah in America with receiving gifts on each of the eight nights of the holiday. The roots of this gift-giving tradition date back to the Middle Ages, to a more simple time in which coins were given at Hanukkah as a means to support Jewish teachers and dispense charity in the Jewish community.
Chocolate Hanukkah coins date to 1920 in America when the item first became commercialized. And yet, the giving of Hanukkah coins is often attributed to a legend connected to the miraculous victory of the Maccabees over the ancient Greeks. During the Hasmonean dynasty, when independence was brought to Judea, the Hasmoneans celebrated their freedom by minting the first Jewish coins in history. In 1 Maccabees 15:6 King Antiochus declared to Simon “I turn over to you the right to make your own stamp for coinage for your country.” Yet, it was only in 1958, two thousand years later, that the Bank of Israel started issuing annually special commemorative coins to be used as Chanukah gelt. The first coin portrayed the same menorah that had appeared on the last Maccabean coins of Antigonus.
Legend aside, the origin for giving gifts of Hanukkah coins dates back to Europe. Traditionally called Chanukah gelt in Yiddish or maot Chanukah or damai Chanukah (Hanukkah money) in Hebrew, this Askenazi custom of giving money or gifts at Chanukah is not mentioned in the Bible, Talmud or Shulhan Aruch. The custom of giving money as a gift developed in the seventeenth century among Polish Jews. The giving of Chanukah gelt originally pertained to charitable giving of money for the holy objects in the synagogue (klai kodesh) and to the poor. Beggars would stop by the homes of Jewish kinfolk to collect their Chanukah gelt gift. Even though begging door-to-door was generally prohibited by Jewish communities, Chanukah time was considered an exception to the rule.
Gelt giving to teachers (melamdim) became an important component of Chanukah during the Middle Ages. After dinner, during the nights of Chanukah, parents would give their children several coins to take to school the next day to distribute to their teachers in the schools (hedarim). These monetary gifts (or Chanukah gelt) were spread throughout the week of Chanukah. They were deemed to be bonuses and actually counted among the teachers’ primary means of support. The giving of Chanukah gelt was also a way to emphasize and model the dignity of Torah learning. The tradition later broadened to include gifts to Jewish communal workers. Eventually, the custom expanded to the giving of coins to children for their own account and then to students during the holiday, to sweeten the process of Jewish learning and reward Torah study.
It was also the custom during Chanukah for poor Yeshivah students to visit the homes of Jews who would dispense Chanukah money. The rabbis approved such Chanukah dispensations to publicize the story of the miracle of the oil. The tradition of giving Chanukah gelt to students and children ultimately supplied money for children’s dreidel games and students’ card games. In days of extensive Jewish poverty in Eastern Europe and, later on in the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Chanukah gelt provided children mired in poverty with greater opportunities and relief.
Similar customs existed amongst the Sephardim of Turkey and Greece. The synagogue leaders distributed potato pancakes to families in their homes in exchange for monetary donations designated for community needs. Among the Sephardim of Salonica, during Chanukah, children were given money and candy while newlyweds were given household items and new clothes.
Perhaps American Jews, in the late twentieth century, expanded upon the European Jewish practice of supporting the poor in the Jewish community as part of the Chanukah gelt tradition. The propensity for Jews acting charitably during Jewish holidays, notably Chanukah, may have made it easier, ultimately, for American Jews to embrace volunteering at Christmas-time. American Jews, acting in the spirit of Chanukah, have broadened the gelt-giving practice to acts of tzedakah outside of the Jewish community. Furthermore, Jewish institutions have used the tradition of Chanukah gelt as a theme for fundraising.