Hanukkah History: Chocolate Gelt Coins

Updated on January 26, 2017
Chocolate gelt coins such as these (featuring a menorah design) are often handed out during Hanukkah, but the holiday tradition has a basis in real money.
Chocolate gelt coins such as these (featuring a menorah design) are often handed out during Hanukkah, but the holiday tradition has a basis in real money. | Source

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.

Dreidels for sale in Jerusalem, Israel with נ ג ה פ  on the blue dreidels and נ ג ה ש on the  orange dreidels.
Dreidels for sale in Jerusalem, Israel with נ ג ה פ on the blue dreidels and נ ג ה ש on the orange dreidels. | Source

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!

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Buying Gelt

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!

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Melanie Palen

    Comments

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      • spotlight19 profile image

        Jennifer Pena 

        3 years ago from California

        I really liked your article its always fun to learn about the history and culture of other ethnicities.

      • profile image

        theking2020 

        6 years ago

        Everyones culture is incredible, love reading things that can add value to anyones life.

      • Sinea Pies profile image

        Sinea Pies 

        6 years ago from Northeastern United States

        I have one Israeli coin that was inadvertently given to me as change! I love it. Something about it seems more special. Gift shops at synagogues can be a source for gelt as well. We have a lovely temple in our town that has a gift shop.

      • cardelean profile image

        cardelean 

        6 years ago from Michigan

        Thanks for the history lesson, I appreciate it. Sharing this on FB!

      • Debby Bruck profile image

        Debby Bruck 

        6 years ago

        Dear Mel ~ This page was awesome and I will have to send out to many friends so they can learn more about gelt. Happy Hanukah! Love, Debby

      • profile image

        john000 

        6 years ago

        Your article reminded me of my youth. When at friends' houses I would see the gelt. The first time I was astounded to see gold coins. I was really astounded when my friend peeled the metalic wrap off and handed me a chocolate. What a great tradition. Thanks.

      • Hello, hello, profile image

        Hello, hello, 

        6 years ago from London, UK

        I love reading about other people's culture and traditions. That was fascinating. Thank you.

      • randomcreative profile image

        Rose Clearfield 

        6 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

        My dad's parents are Jewish so my brother and I used to get gelt on occasion during December. I would love to buy it again sometime. Thanks for the information and tips!

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