The gelt in giving and receiving
“Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights.” The immortal lyrics of actor/singer-songwriter Adam Sandler may not strictly reflect reality – at least in South Africa – but the ancient tradition of Chanukah gelt (money in Yiddish) is one that many Jewish families follow around the world.
“With Chanukah, the tradition was never about gift-giving,” says Rabbi Ari Kievman of Sandton Central Shul, “that’s more a Christmas tradition, not the Jewish one”. Indeed, the idea of eight nights of presents is something that became increasingly popular in the United States around the 1950s.
“At this time, Jewish child psychologists as well as rabbis started promoting gifts as a way to make post-Holocaust Jewish kids happy to be Jewish rather than sad about missing out on Christmas,” reports www.myjewishlearning.com.
Today, there’s even a (largely American) phenomenon known as “Christmas envy”, reportedly a concern for many Jewish parents who give their children Chanukah presents to counter this.
Though many of our children are hardly lacking, one can certainly choose to give gifts for Chanukah. Yet, if you’re looking to follow authentic Chanukah traditions, it comes back to Chanukah gelt, something mentioned in both the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) and the Gemara.
It’s also traced back hundreds of years to when students in Europe would give gelt as gifts to their teachers on Chanukah, who couldn’t accept payment for teaching Torah. Eventually, parents began giving their children their own share of the money for studying Torah.
The root of the Hebrew word chinuch (education) is the same as the root of the word Chanukah. Today, gelt isn’t simply about spoiling our kids or grandchildren, it’s about connecting them to an ancient custom and teaching them about the importance of giving back.
While some families simply distribute chocolate coins, others give money. Many give their children progressively more gelt each night in line with lighting more candles and increasingly dispelling darkness. Any amount is acceptable, although you may want the money to add up to a multiple of chai – the Hebrew word for life, which has the numerical value of 18.
This practice can also be used to teach our children the value of money and saving up for something worthwhile.
Teaching kids the value of money is a passion for property sales consultant Laureen Shalpid, who established Fun Finance, a money management course for children aged seven to 11.
She has since written an – as yet unpublished – series of books on the basic principles of saving, spending, and sharing one’s money. Shalpid stresses the need for parents to model financial goal-setting behaviour to their kids.
It offers them a deeper understanding of how they choose to spend their hard-earned funds in a way that reflects their needs and values as people.
“Indulging our kids’ every whim doesn’t create a platform for them to learn healthy financial habits,” she says. “If the goal is to have a financially savvy child that will grow into a financially secure adult, then teaching our children practical money skills from an early age will have a positive impact on their financial development.
“The converse is also true, and therefore the longer we take to reinforce these financials skills in a positive way, the more we allow for negative spending habits to develop in our children.”
Shalpid suggests discussing money with your children openly, teaching them the difference between needs and wants, and opening a savings account for them so they can develop maturity and practical money skills.
Not only can Chanukah gelt be used to teach children financial skills, it can also promote an awareness of the need to give back. “The gelt isn’t just for one’s kids because, as with every Jewish festival, we don’t just take care of ourselves in celebration, we have to be there for others,” says Kievman.
The Talmud itself refers to gelt in that it teaches that you’re not allowed to use the lights of the Chanukah menorah for your own benefit, “even to use the light to count your money”.
“This is very likely a symbol that indicates that people traded money on Chanukah,” says Kievman. He argues that it also goes back to the origins of the dreidel game, now often played together with the gelt.
Dreidel began as a made-up game that kids would play when the Greek soldiers came to do inspections, to hide the fact that they were studying Torah.
“By giving out money and playing the game of dreidel today, we recall how they played dreidel in order to persevere and study Torah in spite of the harsh conditions they were facing.
“It’s part of the tradition of recalling this ‘dedication’ – the English translation of Chanukah – and about teaching kids about the importance of tzedakah.”
Kievman recalls his own cherished childhood growing up in New York, where he and thousands of other kids received double Chanukah gelt from the Lubavitcher Rebbe during his special Chanukah rally. One half was for the kids to enjoy and buy toys or sweets, the other was to give to charity.
“Part of the symbolism of giving one’s children Chanukah gelt is about teaching the importance of the fact that we don’t just celebrate ourselves, we’re not just about indulging in our own enjoyment but also catering for others,” says Kievman.
Shalpid reinforces this idea. “We have to teach our children that no matter how much or how little we might have, there will always be someone who has less than us.
“Helping another fellow human being is our way of showing humility and kindness. They can set aside 10% of the money they might have earned from chores, rewards, or gifts that they received for donation to those less fortunate. Beyond that, it’s important to stress that tzedakah can also come in the form of chesed [acts of kindness], all of which brings our unique divine spark into the world.”
Kievman points to the words of Hillel who says in Pirkei Avot, “‘If I am not for me, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?’ You’ve got to take care of yourself, and charity certainly begins at home, but it doesn’t end there. You have to extend it beyond the home.
“Chanukah gelt, which is a luxury, signifies a light beyond the world, you’re giving kids something beyond their basic needs, and there’s something in that too,” says Kievman. “It teaches kids that they have to give back the traditional 10% of their earnings but also enjoy something for themselves, which aligns with Hillel’s idea.”
Eli Kay was a modern-day Maccabee
Eliyahu David Kay is a hero of the Jewish people. He was murdered in Jerusalem this week for only one reason: being a Jew. He was a proud Jew and a committed Zionist. He was a chayal boded (lone soldier). He came to Israel on his own, served in the Israel Defense Forces, and then began to make his life in Israel. His brothers, too, served as lone soldiers.
Eli was born to parents who live these ideals deeply, and who instilled them in their children. And he comes from a community in which the flame of Zionism burns brightly – and has done for generations.
Through the life he lived, Eli reminded us all of the original Zionist ideals and the incredible self-sacrifice of the early pioneers, many of whom gave their lives to protect and preserve the dream of a Jewish state.
Where does such idealism originate? It didn’t begin in Basel in 1897 but thousands of years before, at the very onset of Jewish history. In the famous opening words of parshat Lech Lecha, G-d tells Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, “Go – from your country, from your birthplace, from your father’s home – to the land I will show you.”
Abraham was called to leave the comfort and familiarity of the home he grew up in; to leave everything behind and journey to the land of Israel to fulfil his G-d-given role in Jewish history and destiny. Zionism begins right there, rooted in this original call from G-d; in our sense of mission and our very identity as a nation.
Eli Kay lived this Zionism, a Zionism rooted in the divine ideals of our people, a Zionism that transcends mere Jewish nationalism and speaks to something far deeper. The same idealism, the same noble-minded Zionism, of the founding father and mother of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah.
It’s the golden thread that runs throughout Jewish history, that connects one family of brave, selfless heroes to another. We are about to celebrate Chanukah, when we remember how Matityahu and his brothers, known as the Maccabees, a family of Torah scholars from a tribe of priests, single-handedly defeated the mighty Greek empire, reclaiming the land of Israel.
But this was more than a military victory. The Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem had been overrun by the Greek army and converted into a shrine for idol worship. And the Greeks had imposed not just political dominion over the Jewish people, but cultural and ideological hegemony too. In seeking to impose Hellenistic values and philosophy and to supplant Torah values and a Jewish way of life, the Greeks outlawed the performance of many crucial mitzvot, including Shabbat and circumcision. It was an attempt to subvert the entire Jewish value system.
Unlike the Romans who came after the Greeks, and who actually burnt the Temple to the ground, the Greeks were more intent on redirecting the Temple towards their own ideology and beliefs. They brought idols into its sacred precinct, and used the Temple and its facilities for pagan worship.
This wasn’t a fight for physical survival or a simple conflict over territory and resources. The Maccabees weren’t just political freedom fighters. This was a struggle for spiritual values and ideals.
That’s why our sages focused on the menorah and the miracle of the oil as the symbol of Chanukah rather than the miraculous military battle. The menorah – the rededication of the Temple to its holy service, the spiritual values and practices of the Jewish people, the light of Torah – is what the Maccabees were fighting for.
It’s deeply significant that the modern state of Israel chose the menorah as its official symbol. It reminds us that to be a Jew and to be a Zionist isn’t a simple nationalistic identity; that our connection to the land of Israel and to our people is rooted in our values and in our Torah.
The senseless murder of Eli Kay makes this clear. The cold-blooded gunning down of a tour guide doesn’t fit into a political or nationalistic narrative. Our struggle with those who would banish us from our land isn’t, in essence, a territorial battle but one of values. If this were a mere political dispute over borders, the conflict would have been resolved long ago.
Eli was murdered in the Old City of Jerusalem, on the way to daven at the Kotel, metres away from the very place the Maccabees entered the Temple. And with their same heroic spirit and clarity of vision and values, Eli sacrificed his life for the same cause.
May the memory of Eliyahu David ben Avraham Chaim be a blessing.
Oily clash of civilisations in one lamp
Most of us use candles for lighting the chanukiah, but our sages lauded the use of olive oil. The reasons for this are more revealing than you might have imagined. The oil used for salad dressing and good cooking turns out to be the focal point of the clash between ancient Greece and the Jewish people.
As you know, on Chanukah we celebrate the victory of our ancestors against foreign invaders. In 165 BCE, after three years of hostilities, the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, finally drove out from Jerusalem the Greek-speaking occupying forces, led by the Selucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes.
But this wasn’t just a military victory of Israel’s Jews over the Greco-Syrians, it was also a cultural victory of Judaism over Hellenisation — the assimilation of Jews into ancient Greek culture.
Each year, we light the eight-branched chanukiah to remind us of the miraculous story of the small jar of unsullied olive oil that our ancestors discovered and used to rededicate the menorah in the ransacked Temple. A miracle occurred, and the menorah’s lights continued to burn for eight days until more pure oil could be produced.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that though any kind of oil is acceptable to use for the chanukiah lights, olive oil is most preferred (Shabbat 23a). Another scholar, Rabbah bar Nachmani, suggested that sesame oil might be better as its light is longer-lasting, but then he yields to Rabbi Yeshoshua because, he says, olive oil “produces a clearer light”.
Now that’s a surprise. Surely longer-lasting sesame oil would better remind us of the long-lasting little jug of oil? A second surprise is that no one cares to mention that it had always been olive oil that was used to light the actual menorah. As the Torah says, “Now you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure olive oil, pressed for illumination, to light the menorah continually.” (Exodus 27:20). Instead, what matters here seems to be the special clear light that’s unique to olive oil. What’s going on?
The continuation of the Talmud here is even more surprising. The discussion of Chanukah is interrupted so that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi can introduce another issue. He says that all oils are also fit for the production of the ink used to write our sacred scrolls, such as a Sefer Torah, but that, again, olive oil is most preferred.
As well as binding agents, this indelible black ink was produced by collecting the soot from the light of an olive oil lamp dissolved in yet more olive oil. So, although the ink for a modern Sefer Torah is now produced from alternative ingredients, the ideal Sefer Torah, as described by our Talmudic sages, clearly involved the copious use of olive oil to write every single letter. So it must be that this type of oil has some central importance to Jewish religious culture.
It turns out that olive oil was essential to Greek culture too. Athens, the ancient capital of Greece, took its name from Athena, the goddess of wisdom, because she introduced them to the olive tree.
The most common coin in ancient Greece depicted Athena on one side, wearing an olive wreath on her helmet, and an olive branch and owl (for wisdom) on the other. Even today, the Greek one euro coin has Athena and the olive branch on one side.
Olive oil is a staple of the Greek diet, and it has been an international supplier of this precious liquid for more than four millennia. Olive groves were considered sacred in ancient Greece, and Aristotle wrote that the olive tree was state-protected.
For more than a thousand years, the winners of the Olympic Games (which began in Olympia in 776 BCE) were crowned with a wreath made from an olive branch, and their reward was a lifetime’s supply of olive oil.
It’s no wonder then that olive oil-based lights became the symbol of Chanukah. That pure light represents the clash of civilisations between Greece and Israel. Essentially, the light symbolises wisdom. Its clarity meant you could read and study by it after dark, late into the night. And, just as gaining wisdom requires a huge investment of effort and time, so similarly, it takes 6kg of olives to produce just one litre of olive oil. So, olive oil represents the pursuit and attainment of wisdom for both cultures.
In fact, our sages had a deep respect for ancient Greek thought. Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Chochmei Atunah (the sages of Athens) are all given some recognition in rabbinic literature, and there are hundreds of Greek words in the Talmud. The rabbis sensed that the Greeks, like them, took life seriously and wanted to understand the nature of this world as well as humanity’s role in it.
But Greek thought had a dark side too because it over-emphasised physical beauty both in nature and in the human body. It understood the great virtues — glory, wisdom, love, etc —as manifestations of multiple gods rather than coming from one creator. Many Jews were seduced by this, and a large part of the Chanukah story was the intra-communal conflict between loyal and Hellenised Jews. That was a failure of our people which we must never allow to be repeated.
Today, we can still appreciate the best of Western philosophy, an approach which is rooted in ancient Greek wisdom. Crucially, though, Chanukah must remind us to be ever dedicated to our own particular faith, a faith that gave us G-dly wisdom to live by.
The rabbis of the Talmud valued both Chochmah (wisdom from great minds) and Torah (wisdom from G-d). The precious lights of your chanukiah symbolise enlightenment, both worldly and divine. Rather than clashing, these can be unified in order to live a most meaningful life and “see the light”. May you have an enlightening Chanukah.
- Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies.
Finding your why, not your what
Have you ever heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley? I hadn’t before listening to author and organisational consultant Simon Sinek talk about “How great leaders inspire action”.
In the early 20th century, Samuel Pierpont Langley was on the path to be the first person to invent a flying machine. He had every tool at his disposal – money, support, a Harvard education, and great market conditions. The New York Times followed him around everywhere and people were rooting for Langley. So why haven’t I heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?
A few hundred miles away in Dayton, Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright had none of what we consider to be the “recipe for success”. They had no money. Not a single person on the Wright brothers’ team had a college education, including Orville and Wilbur. The New York Times didn’t follow them around.
So why did they succeed? Sinek suggests that the recipe for success is leading from the why. Most people and most organisations begin with what. They know what they want to do – what their product is and what they are doing. Most know how they will do it – what the strategy and plan is to achieve the what. But very few people know why they do what they do. As Sinek suggests, we should strive to “to answer why: what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why do you get out of bed?”
According to Sinek, this is the reason why Orville and Wilbur were successful. Langley was in pursuit of a result: being rich and famous. The Wright brothers were driven by a cause, by a purpose, by a belief. And on 17 December 1903, the Wright brothers took flight.
I was thinking about the ethic of leading from why as I thought of the Chanukah story. Yehuda Hamaccabee is actually remembered much more for his what. The First Book of Maccabees praises Yehuda’s valour and military talent, suggesting that these qualities made him a natural choice. We remember that he led a small army. As we recall in Al HaNisim in our liturgy:
מָסַרְתָּ גִבּורִים בְּיַד חַלָּשִׁים וְרַבִּים בְּיַד מְעַטִּים (You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.)
He led the Jewish people to reclaim and rededicate the temple. But what we don’t talk about as much is that his reign of leadership was short lived. The priesthood in the aftermath of the Maccabean victory was corrupt and a puppet of the non-Jewish king.
Within two years, Judah the Maccabee was dead and many of his men had been executed. This is the likely reason why chazal were resistant to creating a tractate of Talmud dedicated to Chanukah. I know very little about his why.
Our celebration of Chanukah and the way in which we ritualise it has little to do with Yehuda Hamaccabee’s military victory. If it did, perhaps we would celebrate Chanukah by dressing up as soldiers, with swords and shields, and by re-enacting the victory.
Instead, we celebrate by lighting candles to commemorate the story of the oil. The miracle of one pach, one jar of shemen that lasted for eight days. This is the why of Chanukah.
In fact, the Gemara (Shabbat 21b) asks, “Mai Chanukah?” (What is Chanukah?) This is actually a surprising question. Nowhere else does the Gemara ask what. “Mai Pesach? Mai Sukkot?”
What’s more, people had already been celebrating Chanukah for hundreds of years by the time this question was asked. The question of the Gemara becomes even stranger once you realise that the Gemara has already discussed many details of the holiday. We have already learned about the basic mitzvah of lighting, the method of lighting, and the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as to whether we begin with eight candles and count down, or one and count up. And then suddenly, the Gemara asks, “Mai Chanukah?”
The question cannot be “What is Chanukah”, but why. Why do we celebrate? Rashi reformulates “Mai Chanukah”, and explains, “Al eyzeh nes? (What’s the underlying miracle?) Why did the rabbis establish Chanukah as a holiday?”
The Gemara answers that we celebrate Chanukah because they found “but one cruse of oil that was set in place with the seal of the high priest, but there was in it only [enough] to light a single day. A miracle was done with it, and they lit from it for eight days.”
When we celebrate Chanukah, we are celebrating the courage and faith that the people had in searching for the one jar, and then against all odds, in lighting the menorah.
This is the why of the holiday. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how you want to be remembered and, therefore, how you will live your life. As Sinek points out, Martin Luther King Jr inspired thousands of followers not by his what, but his why. He gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.
So on this Chanukah, let’s get back to your why. Find your inner flame, and let it dance boldly, lighting up our world. This is a world that needs all your light.
- Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the co-founder and president of Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy, also serves on the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City.
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