Melanie has been interested in cultures, languages, and travel since her youth. She also runs a YouTube channel: The Curious Coder.
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 and 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.
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.
Spreading the Story of the Miracle
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 a hanukkiah, the custom of giving gelt grew to provide everyone with enough money so they could obtain much-needed candles.
Reintroducing Beliefs From the Torah
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.
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Where to Buy 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, Israeli 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 Palen
Jennifer Pena from California on December 17, 2014:
I really liked your article its always fun to learn about the history and culture of other ethnicities.
theking2020 on February 13, 2012:
Everyones culture is incredible, love reading things that can add value to anyones life.
Sinea Pies from Northeastern United States on December 23, 2011:
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 from Michigan on December 19, 2011:
Thanks for the history lesson, I appreciate it. Sharing this on FB!
Debby Bruck on December 17, 2011:
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
john000 on December 03, 2011:
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, from London, UK on November 22, 2011:
I love reading about other people's culture and traditions. That was fascinating. Thank you.
Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on November 16, 2011:
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!