This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

From Gelt to Gifts*

A Hanukkah Journey

During the year that our family was sojourning California, our children came home from school with marvelous reports of the gifts that their classmates had received in honour of Hanukkah: colour televisions, Nintendos and beyond. We had of course heard about the exaggerated commercialization of the American Hanukkah, but the phenomenon did not become tangible for us until that experience.

In comparison with the Mishloah manot of Purim or the Afikoman-bargaining of the Passover seder, gifts are not a traditional feature of Hanukkah observances.

The closest equivalent to an institution of gift-giving on Hanukkah is the Eastern European custom of distributing "Hanukkah-gelt" to the children. However, even this is of recent vintage, and it is hard to find mentions of it before the nineteenth century.

It would appear that Hanukkah-gelt evolved out of an earlier practice with a decidedly different character. Inspired by the semantic and etymological connections between "Hanukkah" --dedication, and hinnukh--education, some Jewish communities used the Hanukkah season as an opportunity to recognize their religious teachers and students. An interesting practical application of these ideals is related in "Hemdat Yamim," a homiletical collection first published in eighteenth-century Smyrna, a work whose author's identity (other than the fact that he was a devotee of the messianic pretender Shabbetai Zvi) has continued to elude bibliographers.

The Hemdat Yamim reports that "in some communities, the custom has arisen of having the children distribute coins to their teachers along with other gifts. Other beggars make the rounds then, though the mitzvah is intended primarily for the benefit of impecunious students."

Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoye, the renowned student of Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, wrote that in Eastern Europe it was customary during Hanukkah for Rabbis to make the rounds of outlying villages to strengthen their Jewish education. Although initially the teachers were scrupulous about not accepting payment for their services, eventually they agreed to at least accept compensation for lost time. Before long the tour, with trademark lantern in hand, came to be seen by many as expressly intended for the collection of material tokens of appreciation, and this evolved into a quasi-obligatory gift of Hanukkah-gelt. Hanukkah-gelt tours are mentioned as a routine matter in some early Hasidic stories, and the practice expanded to encompass additional recipients--such as preachers, cantors, butchers and beadles--as well as a broader variety of acceptable currencies--including whiskey, grain, vegetables and honey. The right to collect Hanukkah-gelt would be written into the contracts of communal employees, and legends were even circulated to the effect that one of the collectors might be none other than the prophet Elijah!

It is not until the nineteenth century that we begin to hear about Hanukkah-gelt being directed primarily at children. We are not certain how or why this transformation occurred, but it is described in several autobiographical memoirs, especially by children of well-to-do homes.

Variations on these customs were also observed in Sepharadic and oriental communities. Poor Jewish children in Persia would go door to door offering, in return for gifts, to protect their benefactors' households from the Evil Eye by burning special grasses. In Yemen, it was customary for Jewish mothers to give their children a small coin on each day of Hanukkah, with which to purchase sugar powder and red colouring that would be used as ingredients for a special holiday treat: a sweet beverage known as "Hanukkah wine" that was drunk at their nightly parties.

In the "old yishuv" of Israel, Sepharadic yeshiva children circulated through the neighbourhood asking for contributions of food for their festive Hanukkah feast. The little "Maccabees" in Hebron would reinforce their demands with toy rifles. In Jerusalem, the teachers made their own tour of the Jewish Quarter, serenading the householders with Ladino songs. The custom was believed to be linked to the week's Torah portion in which Jacob urges his sons to "go again and procure some food for us."

Needless to say, an immense gulf separates the customs described here from the shopping frenzy that is associated with the North American Hanukkah.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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