Got Gelt?

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That was then: Although Hanukkah was not historically of relative import as a holiday, it was awaited with great anticipation by the children! Let’s face it…children are excited about Hanukkah gifts! Gelt, a gift of money that is given throughout the holiday, provided the leitmotif for Sholom Aleichem’s story “Chanukah Gelt.” In quest of holiday coins, two brothers brave a visit to Uncle Moishe-Aaron. After tolerating relentless and tiresome conversation, the boys are rewarded…with valueless Russian coins. OY!!!

This is now: Gelt is still given; however, on a community-wide basis, American Jews in the late twentieth century expanded upon the European practice of supporting the poor in the Jewish community as part of the Hanukkah Gelt tradition. The propensity for Jews acting charitably during the Jewish holidays, notably Hanukkah, may have eased the way for American Jews to embrace volunteerism at Christmas-time. American Jews, acting in the spirit of Hanukkah, have broadened the gelt-giving practice to acts of tzedakah outside of the Jewish community. Furthermore, Jewish institutions have used the tradition of Hanukkah gelt as a theme for seasonal fundraising.

In the 1920s, American candy companies, such as Loft’s, first introduced gold and silver foil-wrapped chocolate gelt. According to Rabbi Deborah Prinz, who explored the historical nexus between Jews and chocolate in her book On The Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals And Recipes To The Magic Of Cacao, links this inspiration to chocolate coins (called “geld”) given to children during the St. Nicholas holiday celebrated in Belgium and the Netherlands in early December.

A Bissel Gelt Perhaps?

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So everyone does it! And even with chocolate!

What are we talking about? It’s the giving of Hanukkah gelt!!! So, one might ask: where does this custom originate?

The origin of giving Hanukkah gelt dates back to seventeenth century Poland. It originally pertained to charitable giving of money for the purchase and maintenance of holy objects in the synagogue. The custom then expanded to giving to the poor. Beggars would stop by the homes of Jewish kinfolk to collect Hanukkah gelt. Even though begging door-to-door was generally prohibited by Jewish communities, Hanukkah time was considered an exception to the rule. Gelt-giving to teachers was also customary and became an expected monetary bonus contributing to the teachers’ primary means of support. Gelt-giving was also considered a way to emphasize and model the dignity of giving as required by the Torah. The tradition later broadened to include gifts to Jewish communal workers and eventually to children for their own account and to students as a means to sweeten the process of Jewish learning and as a reward for Torah study.

So, where are we today vis-à-vis the giving of gelt? Certainly, gelt is often given to children during Hanukkah. However, chocolate gelt has certainly permeated the Jewish cultural mindset. Even Trader Joe’s carries chocolate gelt. (It’s available now but is wildly popular, so don’t wait!)

Thanksgivukkah tidbit: Judging from what we have observed in the media (both print form and internet-based), the countdown to Thanksgivukkah continues! (Perhaps a kosher version of the advent calendar is in order!) In case you didn’t know, you really need to purchase Thankgivukkah gelt, made from Pure Belgian Callebaut chocolate by Foiled Again Chocolates (foiledagainchocolate.com).