Publicizing the miracle of Chanukah is so important that even a pauper, who has no money at all, is required to borrow money in order to buy oil for lighting. People therefore began to give a little money (gelt) to the poor so that they would not be embarrassed or forced to ask for assistance. Because the idea of “being diligent in lighting the Chanukah lights” is primary in both giving to the poor and meriting wise children, it became the custom to give children gelt as a reward for studying. Children who were diligent in their studies were rewarded with a shiny coin.
While gifts are an offshoot of the holiday, they represent an important element of Chanukah–chinuch, Jewish education.
The Maccabees fought so that their children and their children’s children would be able to study Torah freely and be knowledgeable about their Jewish heritage. Jewish children are taught about Judaism not only for today, but for posterity as well, as it says in Proverbs 22:6: “Educate a young person in his/her own way, when he/she grows old he/she will not turn from it.”
Over time, the simple practice of giving gelt (coins or presents) became a Chanukah custom – and not just for children. In truth, however, it is not surprising that gift giving has moved beyond just children. In our own day and age, we, the adults, also need encouragement to learn about who we are and what our Jewish heritage means.
*This Treat was originally published on December 22, 2011.