Hanukkah History: Chocolate Gelt Coins
What is Hanukkah Gelt?
Hanukkah gelt, like Hanukkah itself, has a long, rich history and is strongly tied to Judaism. The word "gelt" is a Yiddish word meaning money (the Hebrew word for this is dmei.) During Hanukkah, Jewish families give their children gelt or gelt-shaped chocolates.
The tradition of gifting these chocolates spread outside of Judaism to families who celebrate other wintertime holidays, namely Christmas. For example, chocolate gelt (or other coin-shaped chocolate) is available for purchase in various supermarkets throughout the US and is commonly used as a Christmas stocking stuffer. This is often done in celebration of a multi-cultural holiday season.
These chocolates often come packaged in a small, cloth "money bag" or sometimes just plastic netting shaped like a bag. Each chocolate is stamped with a coin design wrapped in gold colored foil so that it looks like a real coin.
Before the 1920s, when an American confectioner produced the first chocolate gelt, Jewish families actually gave real gelt (money) to their children for Hanukkah. However, since its creation, chocolate gelt has become extremely popular.
Betting Gelt & Spinning the Dreidel
Dreidel, a game traditionally played by Jewish children, is a betting game involving a four-sided spinning top with Hebrew characters on each side. Gelt (and chocolate gelt) received during Hanukkah is often used as currency (to place bets) in the game.
While chocolate gelt has become very popular, today Jewish parents often give actual money as a gift to their children for Hanukkah. Chocolate gelt is often included as a small gift for Hanukkah but is generally no longer considered a "main gift", but rather more as a small symbolic token. Today, both the dreidel and gelt are recognized as symbols of Hanukkah and, as such, are often bought together.
When is Hanukkah in 2017?
This year, Hanukkah begins on the evening of December 12 and ends on the evening of
January 20. Happy Hanukkah!
Why a Monetary Gift?
The tradition of giving money to children dates all the way back to the 17th century in Europe, particularly in Poland. Here, families would give money to their children who would then bring the money to their teachers as a donation. Later, as well as donating money to schools and teachers, families would also give their children money to keep.
By the 18th century, it became customary for poor children to visit the homes of well-off families who would give them gelt. This custom met the approval of rabbis as this would spread the story of the miracle of Hanukkah.
According to the Talmud, Chanukah lights are of major importance because they publicize the miracle. Because the poor often could not afford candles for their menorot (that's the plural of menorah), the custom of giving gelt grew to provide everyone with enough money so they could obtain much-needed candles.
In addition to this, Greek/Hellenistic beliefs had a heavy influence on the Jewish population. After the defeat of the Greeks, the beliefs and values shared in the Torah had to be reintroduced to Jews. It thus became customary to give gelt to children as a reward for studying the Torah during Chanukah. This helped re-instill beliefs drawn from the Torah in the Jewish population.
Did You Know?
In 1958, the Bank of Israel issued commemorative Hanukkah gelt coins.
These coins had the image of the same Menorah found on Maccabean coins that were used 2000 years ago!
Which would you rather receive?
Chocolate Hanukkah gelt can be purchased in many supermarkets and candy shops during the holiday season. Israeli coins can be given as a real Hanukkah gelt. As they can't be spent outside of Israel, Israel coins are more of a novelty gift, but still a really unique and fun idea.
Israeli coins can be found in some coin shops and even on Internet auction sites like eBay. If you're fortunate enough to live in or near a Jewish neighborhood, head out to some of the local shops. If there's a Jewish gift shop around, they're sure to have Israeli coins or gelt available or something else fun and unique that can be purchased instead!
© 2011 Melanie Shebel