Reclaiming Hanukkah Gelt

By Jon Leener and Avram Mlotek

“Put on your yarmulke,” sings Adam Sandler in what has become our generation’s anthem of celebrating our heritage: “The Hanukkah Song.”  In this classic, Sandler teaches us that instead of one day of presents, we get “eight crazy nights.” What are these nights, though, and what do they really mean?

Sandler was onto something.  Hanukkah is certainly celebratory, gathering with family, eating latkes and spinning dreydl are fundamental and fun but the emphasis is not on simply receiving; it’s about giving.  This theme is best encapsulated in the tradition of Hanukkah Gelt.

Yiddish for money, Hanukkah gelt is sometimes real and sometimes chocolate but where does this tradition really come from? The great Torah sage, Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, also known as the Magen Avraham, says the reason is much deeper than child’s play.  The Magen Avraham wrote that Hanukkah gelt enabled the poor to get the money they needed for candles without feeling any shame.

Shame?  Poor?  Aren’t we supposed to be eating latkes?  Festive treats are important but Maimonides reminds us that “eating without feeding the poor is not rejoicing of a mitzvah, but rejoicing of one’s gut.” Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, The Mishna Berura, explains that the poor would customarily wait by people’s doors especially during Hanukkah.  The poor seemed to move from the streets and closer to people’s homes, where the Hanukkah candles burned bright.  Hanukkah gelt operated as a type of magnet, pulling together all, no matter their financial circumstances.

Jewish law teaches we need be extremely cautious vis-a-vis the commandment of lighting Hanukkah candles and mentions that even the poor are obligated in this mitzvah.  These are the lights of Hanukkah we must be tending, lighting and fostering: the hungry, the oppressed, the marginalized and the homeless.  In the same way that some communities create large menorah lighting ceremonies in center of town, our synagogues should distribute warm clothing to the cold and free food to the hungry in the center of our cities.

The holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the discovery of a tiny jug of oil that managed to burn longer than anyone anticipated.  It also celebrates the victory of a tiny Maccabean entourage over the powerful Greek army.  The Greek empire sought to eradicate Jewish life and living.  What better way to celebrate this holiday than to rededicate ourselves to the practices which are meant to define us?

“Tradition!” cries Tevye.   Tradition is tremendously important, but what’s more, is understanding the meaning behind our customs and traditions.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that Hanukkah gelt celebrates the freedom we have and the charge to channel material wealth towards spiritual pursuits.   As we light Hanukkah candles in our homes these holy days, let’s be sure these eight crazy nights shine a beacon of righteousness and justice, in addition to presents and jelly donuts.


About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of Base BKLYN in Crown Heights and the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul.