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Why the Gelt?

Why the Gelt?

Reasons for giving Chanukah gifts



My wife thinks that giving gifts during Chanukah is just an imitation of what everyone else is doing at this time of year. Are Chanukah gifts Jewish?


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 Talmud1 that the Chanukah lights are sacred and may not be used for any other purpose. The example given there 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.2
  • 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 Talmud3 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.4
  • 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 reward5 for Torah study.6
  • 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 be 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.7

Now, to get back to your question, it is true that the practice of giving gifts on Chanukah has been popularized largely due to Chanukah’s proximity to the Christian holiday season. As such, to maintain Jewish tradition, many Jewish families make a point to give Chanukah gelt as opposed to other presents. Your wife knows what she’s talking about.

1. Shabbat 22a.
2. Likutei Levi Yitzchak, Igrot, p. 358.
3. Shabbat 23a.
4. Magen Avraham, preface to Orach Chaim 670.
5. This subtle form of “bribery” is an essential component in the educational process. Maimonides discusses the importance of using incentives and prizes until a child is old enough to independently understand the importance and beauty of the Torah and mitzvahs (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 10:5).
6. Likutei Levi Yitzchak ibid.
7. Likutei Sichot, vol. 10, p. 291.
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Discussion (16)
December 20, 2014
A little context is important in the Chanukah/Christmas discussion. Gift giving among the Christians wasn't as widespread as it might seem today. Remember, we suffer from a sort of presentism, where thing seem to have always been as they are now. I imagine early Christians labored over similar discussions of how their holiday and gift-giving was too much like Saturnalia, which was also close in proximity.
Gifts in December started with the Roman pagans, and they probably adopted it from someone else as well.
There is nothing new under the sun.
November 30, 2014
In America, it's tough not to give the children presents on Chanukkah..We know that it has been changed because of the proximity to a certain holiday but honestly--the kids love it, they love Chanukkah--it doesn't hurt to get some presents.. ( :
November 21, 2013
Chanukah gelt
Thank you for this precious lesson!
Christine Doris Truog
Chur, Switzerland
November 17, 2013
GELT or GELD (in GERMAN) comes from the same root of GOLD (ZAHAV in Hebrew)
The word used in the Hebrew is KESEF for this issue (for MONEY) that
has totally other linguistical origin
The article is very interesting like always
Montevideo- ROU URUGUAY
November 15, 2013
Nothing like learning a bit of history. Then many things make sense. By the way, mr.Anonymous, there's not a single moment I dislike the Jewish people. The reflexion, the study, why not the comfort and happiness that learning more and more about it brings me is priceless. I can only say Todah to all those involved project. The everyday teachings are the most precious gifts I could get!
December 13, 2012
. . .
that awkward moment when nobody likes Jews . . .
December 26, 2011
very interesting
...and educational!
New York, NY
November 30, 2010
another reason
I have learned that since the Chashmonaim minted coins when they reclaimed the Temple, the custom of gelt began to remind us of our independence from Hellenistic rule, spiritual, physical and monetary.
Longmeadow, MA
April 27, 2010
Re: carol
It was the tradition of the Chabad Rebbe's to give 'Chanukah gelt' on either the fourth or fifth night. See Hayom Yom for the 28th of Kislev.

Additionally, one of the reasons given for the significance of the fifth night is that the fifth day of Chanukah can never fall out on the Shabbat. Thus we wish to add extra light on that day.
Yehuda Shurpin for
March 28, 2010
Giving Money on Hanukkah
Why is it traditional to give a heftier sum on the 4th and 5th nights of Hanukkah? I had never heard that.
Thank you.
atlanta, GA
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