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Chanukah Gelt – A Lesson in Giving

Chanukah Gelt – A Lesson in Giving

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Every shop-front is plastered with huge banners begging us to just come in and spend money; in fact, retailers reckon that they clear 25% of their annual turnover just on these few weeks. Even the Australian Prime Minister has bought into the festivities, urging us to rescue our faltering economy by going out and spending on flat screen TVs and other costly gewgaws.

But many traditional Jews choose to be the exception. While the kids next door will be waking up next week to a pile of decorated presents, my children will be receiving my Chanukah largess in a much simpler form.

There is a longstanding Jewish tradition to give "Chanukah gelt" (money gifts) to our young ones. Some parents hand out money every night of Chanukah, others only as a once-off. I'm not talking about the ever-popular fake-coins-with-chocolate version, but cold, hard cash. Some of the money is given to charity right away, and the kids can decide for themselves what to do with the rest. In many families they play dreidel with the coins they receive, but when I was a child the highlight of Chanukah was spending our gelt on a visit to the local Jewish bookstore.

But honestly, is there any real difference between the rest of the world and us? They give presents, we give cash. So what? Isn't Chanukah gelt just a scaled down version of the conspicuous consumption going on all around us?

The Miracle of Chanukah

The distinction between receiving money and a present is subtle but oh-so realThe distinction between receiving money and a present is subtle but oh-so real. When you get a present, you receive a fully formed fact-on-the-ground. Take it or leave it, that's all there is to it. A present is a symbol of a relationship predicated on an unequal balance of power; I give, you take. I had, you have.

Money, by contrast, is simultaneously embryonic and enabling. The recipients can transform it into anything they wish, spending it on their heart's desire; and the giver demonstrates his or her trust that the receiver will spend it purposefully.

The story of Chanukah is one of transformation and renewal. We re-inaugurated the Temple in face of all opposition and brought holiness back to a place where evil had reigned. We could have settled for lighting with impure oil, but insisted on illuminating the night with the fires of faith and purity.

I give my children Chanukah gelt in the hope that they effect their own Chanukah transformation; taking that which was physical and rendering it spiritual, bringing light to the shadows and changing the world for the better.

Giving Chanukah gelt is a gift of faith. I trust you to use this money for good and I'm confident that the effects will be positive and permanent. I am filled with pride when my children take their newfound wealth and run off to deposit it in a charity box, and there can be no greater nachas than observing the childish excitement as they pick out Jewish books to buy with their own money.

A present is a short-term statement of affection; its effects may last no longer than the paper it came wrapped in. Giving Chanukah gelt to our children and teaching them to use the money wisely and responsibly is a gift that keeps giving forever.

Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum is spiritual leader of Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation and co-director of L’Chaim Chabad in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia.
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