By Tom Brennan
“Hanukkah gelt” today means chocolate coins to many Christians. However, like all Jewish traditions there are many lessons from this holiday tradition.
We can be sure the weary but jubilant Maccabeean soldiers did not chow down to sufganiyot after liberating the City and capturing the Temple. Potatoes are an American crop so nobody fried up some latkes either. Instead they witnessed a miracle as one day’s holy oil burned for eight to reward their faith and trust. We can also be sure that the children didn’t spin dreidels and get golden coins as gifts. Many Hanukkah traditions have grown through the centuries and been used to help tell the story of the event and teach more lessons as the family gathers to light the candles on their menorahs. The Bible uses many events, images and parables to teach us the rules of a successful life as G-d clearly spelled them out for us. Hanukkah gelt has lessons that point to our being commanded to love the Lord with all our heart, mind and spirit and our neighbor as well.
The giving of gold coins is said to have developed in 17th and 18th century Europe as a reward for teachers. Judaism has had as a core the study of Torah and the other writings of Scripture and this love of study has migrated into other more secular subjects. Jewish scholars are among the most respected and quoted in most of the world’s cultures and societies. Those parents who could afford it would give gifts of coins to the teachers who instructed their children. Later the students themselves began to request gifts and received them as well. The tradition went into hibernation for a while as the fortunes of Jews in Europe ebbed and flowed as Czars, Kings and nationalities took out their political and economic frustrations on the always available and always convenient Jews.
The American industrial giant of the 1920’s saw an opportunity to revive a custom and make a few dollars by being able to mass produce chocolate coins, wrapped in thin gold-colored foil. The appetite for chocolate and being able to mass produce a commodity that knows no age or social limitations resulted in the renewal of a not so old custom with ancient roots.
Giving and charity are contained in several places in Deuteronomy (Deut 15:8 and 16:20). Tithing for the Temple, for the support of widows and orphans and supporting the poor are essential to the life of society. The Sage, Maimonides wrote that there are eight levels of giving, these are considered “deeds of justice”. In The Acts of the Apostles the role of deacon is developed since the duties of the Apostles were becoming very detailed and refined and the charitable tables where food and more likely money to buy food needed to be managed. There is a famous dispute over alleged favoritism for Jewish needy over Gentiles. Giving to support the community’s poor was considered an absolute duty by the synagogues in 1st century Judea and this caring for less fortunate carried out into the post 70 AD and 135 AD diaspora. Tzedakah is an essential part of the traditions and customs of Judaism.
Today the chocolate coins have the Menorah on them. Chocolate coins with Christmas themes are also a part of the heritage of mass produced holiday candy novelties. Today Israeli manufacturers supply the majority of the “gelt” chocolate, today anyone can order online “Hanukkah gelt” and keep a tradition passing from one generation to the next. There are always a number of opportunities for teaching in the traditions of the Biblical Feasts and the non-Scriptural ones.
This Christmas how about giving out some “gelt” with the chocolate coins often put in stockings? This can open up an opportunity to tell others about the history and meaning of Hanukkah and the traditions of giving so enmeshed in Scriptural living and in Israel today. There is always a lesson, even with candy coins, in Israel.Share this page with your friends
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