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Why Do We Give Hanukkah Gelt and Hanukkah Presents? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 9, Issue No. 2, December 2014

In memory of Jerry and Miriam Katzin z”l, who gave generously to Israel, the Jewish people and Jewish education. “Beloved and cherished; in life and in death not parted” (II Samuel 1:23)

Question from Rabbi Scott Bolton: Have you addressed the matter of [Hanukkah] gelt, and especially that of gifts, from a historical and halakhic standpoint? Are there articles you could point me towards? Texts? Responsa?

Responsum: Thank you for asking me this question. I was surprised to discover that these customs are not even mentioned in many books about Hanukkah and are not discussed in a systematic fashion in dozens of books about Jewish customs in general and about Hanukkah in particular. The first section below is based on the Yiddish work by Yitzhak Rifkind (see the Bibliography) and other sources. The second is based on the book by Asher Wassertil and other sources. The third is based on recent works by Jenna Weissman Joselit and Dianne Ashton.

I) Hanukkah Gelt (Money) and similar customs among the Jews of Europe

There are four sets of sources regarding Hanukkah money and the Jews of Europe:

A) The Italian and Sefardic custom of providing for pupils and buying clothes for pupils and teachers on Hanukkah

  1. As far as I know, the first mention of this custom is in the responsa of Rabbi Shmuel De Medina (Maharashdam, Salonica, 1506-1589, No. 372, quoted by Assaf, p. 539). The questioner says that the clothing made from the wool collected by Rabbi Moshe Alish “did not suffice for Hanukkah clothing“. In the Sefardic Talmud Torahs, they would collect money and use it to buy or make new clothing for the pupils. Indeed, in books of sermons by Sefardic rabbis, there are many sermons about “halbashah” [clothing], which were given in order to encourage the congregation to donate generously (ibid., note 67). For example, Rabbi Hayyim Palache (Izmir, Turkey, 1788-1869), mentions a sermon he gave on Shabbat Halbashah, i.e. Shabbat Hanukkah in 1865 (ibid., p. 578, note 224).
  2. We read in the Takkanot [Regulations] of the Talmud Torah Association in Ancona Italy in 1644 (Assaf, p. 316): “On every Hanukkah they must sew clothing for the poor pupils who studied for a full year in the Talmud Torah, i.e. an outer garment (“bolandranetto”), a pair of shoes and a pair of socks”.
  3. Samuel ibn Nahmias, who converted to Christianity, was born and raised in Venice. He reported in his Italian work Via della Fede (The Way of Faith, Rome 1683; Assaf, pp. 277-278) that every year on Hanukkah the Jews hang clothing around the synagogue as a reminder of the tzedakah which is going to be collected in order to buy clothing for the teachers and the poor pupils. On Shabbat Hanukkah, the Hazzan and the Parnass go from one worshipper to another in the synagogue, bless each one, and each one pledges money for this tzedakah. This is also the custom in Venice in all the synagogues, in the entire east and in Turkey.
  4. The anonymous work Hemdat Yamim was apparently written in the 17th century by a disciple of Shabbetai Zevi. The author reports that it is the custom of the early pious ones to suspend the study of Torah during the eight days of Hanukkah in order to devote themselves to the needs of the poor pupils to support them. “And for this reason the custom spread in some places that the children take money to their teachers on Hanukkah with other foods (manot), and poor people also go from door to door on Hanukkah, but the main mitzvot is for poor pupils” (quoted by Assaf, pp. 443-444 and Rifkind, p. 103). This passage seems to report on two contradictory Hanukkah customs, that the rabbis or teachers raise money for the poor pupils OR that the pupils bring money and food to their teachers.

B) Hanukkah is a time to ask for and to give tzedakah

  1. Rabbi Avraham Gumbiner (Poland, 1637-1683) writes at the beginning of his Magen Avraham commentary on Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 670: “The poor young men [ne’arim] have the custom to go from door to door on Hanukkah, and in Sefer Hanukkat Habayithe wrote a reason for this” (I have not yet seen Sefer Hanukkat Habayit, songs for Hanukkah, which was published by Saul ben David in Prague in 1616).
    Rabbi Yosef Teomim (Poland and Germany, 1727-1792), in his Pri  Megadim/Eshel Avraham to Orah Hayyim ad loc. gives a rather fanciful homiletic explanation for the Magen Avraham‘s custom. Both of these passages were summarized by Rabbi Yehudah Dov Singer (Ziv Haminhagim, 1976, p. 263) and cf. the discussion in Responsa Divrei Soferim, No. 65.
  2. According to the takkanot of the town of Eisenstadt from 1732, it was forbidden to go from door to door begging “except on Hanukkah and Purim“. So too in 1736: “and this was the exception, that on the eight days of Hanukkah and the three days of Purim (sic!), there is permission for every guest who comes at that time to beg from door to door at will, to his heart’s desire” (Rifkind, p. 105). The custom of adults begging for Hanukkah gelt is also mentioned in Yiddish folksongs (ibid.).
  3. Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried (Hungary 1804-1886; Kitzur Shulhan Arukh, 139:1 at end) states: “and they give a lot of tzedakah during Hanukkah, because tzedakah can correct the flaws in one’s soul, and especially tzedakah given to poor Torah students in order to sustain them”.
  4. Dr. Sidney Hoenig states (Hanukkah: the Feast of Lights, Philadelphia, 1937, p. 116) that: “Hanukkah shares with Purim in being a time in which gifts of money are distributed among those in need”.This custom may have arisen by comparing Hanukkah to Purim. On Purim we are required to give Mattanot La’evyonim, gifts to the poor (Megillah 7a-b; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 694). Since these two holidays have a similar status including the recitation of Al Hanissim, it could be that this led to the initial custom of collecting and giving money to the poor. Just as on Purim they make a feast and give out gifts to the poor, so too on Hanukkah.On the other hand, this custom may be an offshoot of section C below which started with rabbis, hazzanim and shamashim asking for Hanukkah gelt and ended with poor people asking for Hanukkah gelt.

C) The earlier Eastern European custom of rabbis, cantors etc. going from door to door and asking for money on Hanukkah

This custom was thoroughly documented by Yitzhak Rifkind (pp. 103-104):

  1. Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef Hacohen explains in his classic Hassidic work Toledot Ya’akov Yosef (Koretz, 1780) that originally rabbis would visit Jews in isolated areas and teach them Judaism on Hanukkah, free of charge. Later, the Jews they were teaching gave them gifts, and finally these Jews sent the rabbis Hanuakkah gelt and the rabbis no longer needed to travel around to the villages (Rifkind, p. 103).
  2. Even if that was not the exact development of this custom, the custom of rabbis and shamashim going around collecting Hanukkah gelt is mentioned in many sources, including theTakkanot of Vladvy from 1799-1800 where it’s called Maot HanukkahShivhei Habesht (Koretz, 1816); and Isaac Meir Dick (Vilna, 1867). Mendele Moicher Seforim (1835-1917) describes the shochet-hazzan and shamash traveling around among the poor Jews in isolated areas collecting potatoes, carrots and other vegetables, which were called Hanukkah gelt (ibid., pp. 103-104).
  3. In Minsk in 1809, they paid the hazzan nine silver rubles so that he should not go around collecting money on Hanukkah from the houses of the balebatim. On the other hand, in Vilna it was stated in the contracts of famous hazzanim that they could go around and ask for Hanukkah gelt (ibid., p. 104).
  4. The custom was that the hazzan, shamash, shochet and choirboys went around at night asking for Hanukkah gelt with lanterns in their hands (ibid.; Akiva ben Ezra, Minhagei Hagim, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1963, p. 136).
  5. Rabbi Yitzhak Lipitz of Shedlitz (Sefer Mat’amim, Warsaw, 1889, pp. 26-27) writes as follows:The reason for the custom that the cantors and the shamashim and the school teachers go from door to door to the houses of the wealthy for Hanukkah money and Purim money… In the early days, when they appointed a rabbi or hazzan or shamash or teacher, they would allot for their livelihood a reward from marriages and from Hanukkah and Purim money so that they should have enough to eat so that they could engage in the rabbinate and in the needs of the community in a dignified fashion.In other words, the money which the Jewish professionals collected from the wealthy on Hanukkah and Purim was an integral part of their salary throughout the year. (Cf. ibid., pp. 26-27 for two involved homiletic explanations on the same topic).

D) The 19th-20th century Eastern European custom of giving Hanukkah gelt to children

When compared to the previous customs, this was the newest custom in Eastern Europe, which probably arose in imitation of Hanukkah gelt for the poor (section B above) or Hanukkah gelt for rabbis and hazzanim (section C above).

  1. The first mention of children receiving Hanukkah gelt from their mother seems to be a memoir by Paulina Wengerov (ca. 1832) who used to receive shiny copper coins from her mother on the fifth night of Hanukkah (Rifkind, p. 105). The fifth night as the night for Hanukkah gelt is also mentioned by Sh. Sachs in 1927 (ibid.) and Hayyim Schauss in his classic work on the Jewish holidays (Duss Yom-Tov Bukh, New York, 1933, p. 186 = The Jewish Festivals, Cincinnati, 1938, p. 233).
  2. The Eastern European custom of Hanukkah gelt for children was immortalized by Shalom Aleichem in the year 1900 in his classic story “Hanukkah Gelt“. The two children in the story receive Hanukkah gelt from their father at night and then go from relative to relative in the morning and each uncle and aunt gives them some coins, some a little and some a lot (It was summarized by Yom Tov Levinsky, Eileh Mo’adei Yisrael, second edition, Tel Aviv, 1971, pp. 113-114. See a complete Hebrew translation in Yom Tov Lewinski, ed., Sefer Hamo’adim, Volume 5, Tel Aviv, 1974, pp. 231-245 and a complete English translation in Goodman, pp. 244-253. The Yiddish original can be accessed at
  3. Yom Tov Lewinski (Eileh Moadei Yisrael, second edition, Tel Aviv, 1971, p. 113) says that:The Christians have accepted an ancient Roman custom to give out money and gifts to children on Christmas. The Jews who lived in Europe for hundreds of years together with their Christian neighbors, also instituted for their children holiday gifts and money called Hanukkah gelt [“demei Hanukkah“]. Not just parents but also relatives – grandmother and grandfather, uncles and aunts, neighbors – gave the children Hanukkah gelt. The children would collect money on Hanukkah and spend it during the year on what their hearts desired.As for Hanukkah gifts, we shall see below that this custom began in the United States in imitation of Christmas presents, but as for Hanukkah gelt I have yet to find any evidence that this was influenced by Christmas.
  4. Various Admorim (Hassidic Rebbes) have the custom of giving out Hanukkah gelt on one of the days of Hanukkah (Wassertil, p. 274). Among the Chabad (Lubavitcher) Hassidim, they give the children Hanukkah gelt on the fourth or fifth night, and on that night the Rebbe gives out Hanukkah gelt to the yeshivah students. (ibid. 296).
  5. Finally, the custom of Hanukkah gelt was commemorated on an Israeli  100 perutot coin in 1957 and by a special Israeli stamp in 1954 (Rifkind, p. 107 with pictures).

II) Hanukkah gifts and money among Sefardic Jews and Jews of Islamic lands 

  1. In the early twentieth century, the Jews of Amadia in Kurdistan used to read the Scroll of Antiochus/Megillat Antiochus on Hanukkah, (It was summarized by Yom Tov Levinsky, Eileh Mo’adei Yisrael, second edition, Tel Aviv, 1971, pp. 113-114. See a complete Hebrew translation in Yom Tov Lewinski, ed., Sefer Hamo’adim, Volume 5, Tel Aviv, 1974, pp. 231-245 and a complete English translation in Goodman, pp. 244-253. The Yiddish original can be accessed at which tells the story of Bagris, Antiochus’s second-in-command, whom the Jews burned.Hence their custom of burning a doll made of wood and rags in effigy. One of the children takes the doll whose name is “Hanukkah” and passes with it through the streets and asks for gifts. The other children run after him and sing songs. At the end of Hanukkah, the children burn the doll, crying “Antiochus, Antiochus!” (Erich Brauer, Yehudei Kurdistan, Jerusalem, 1948, p. 273, which is quoted verbatim by Yehudah Bergman, Hafolklore Hayehudi, Jerusalem, 1961, p. 85; the Jews of Cochin, India had a similar custom of burning Bagris in effigy but without the gifts – Wassertil, p. 486)
  2. Yehudah Bergman reports (ibid.):Among the Sefaradim of Jerusalem, the children come accompanied by their teachers to the wealthy homes and receive fruit, sunflower seeds, vegetables, chickens, from which they make three feasts on the last day/night of Hanukkah: one for the poor, one for the teachers, and one for themselves.A similar report is given by Ya’akov Elazar. The children do not receive Hanukkah gelt. Rather, the pupils and their teachers would collect pita, rice and green beans and for every item of food donated they would sing in Ladino a blessing to the house wife who donated the food. On the eighth day, they would give all the children and young men pita with rice and green beans. (Wassertil, p. 324; for a detailed description of a similar custom among the Jews of Hebron, see Solomon Feffer in Goodman, pp. 159-160)
  3. A similar custom was observed by the Jews of Damascus and in some other Syrian congregations. The children went about collecting money from the members of the community while reciting the quotation from the weekly portion ofMikeitz, which is usually read on Hanukkah (Genesis 43:2): “shuvu shivru lanu me’at okhel“, “go back, buy us a little food”. The Jews gave the children money for a Seudat Hanukkah, which would include fowl, fruits, seeds, sweets and grape wine. On the last day, the children used the money to arrange for three feasts: one for their teachers, one for the poor, and one for themselves. The rabbis and lay leaders participated in the feasts (Herbert Dobrinsky, A Treasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs, Hoboken and New York, 1986, p. 370).
  4. A variant of this custom was observed by the Judeo-Spanish Jews. During Hanukkah, the poor would receive tzedakahfrom whomever they approached. They would quote the above-mentioned verse from Genesis 43 “shuvu shivru lanu me’at okhel“. Upon the recitation of this verse, the poor person would be given either food or money to purchase food. (ibid., p. 374).
  5. In his classic work Halikhot Teiman, Rabbi Yosef Kafih (1917-2000) described the customs of Yemenite Jews before they made aliyah to Israel in 1949. He reports:Every day before evening the mother gives her son a small coin, half a buksha. The boy hurries to the shuk, buys with half that coin a bunch of carrots, small and soft, and with the rest fine sugar which the storekeepers prepare in small paper packets and they add a bit of red food coloring. The boy returns home in joy, puts the sugar and coloring in a small bottle, adds water and it turns into a red sweet drink, which is like wine which the grownups drink, which is called “Hanukkah wine”. (third edition, Jerusalem, 1982, p. 38; cf. Solomon Feffer in Goodman, p. 158 for a very similar description of this custom)
  6. The boys who studied in “heder” in Iraq received a “menorah” which was a gold colored menorah on blue or green or red paper with some passages about the miracle of Hanukkah. They were printed in Calcutta. They also received thin booklets such as “Blessings and Thanksgivings for Hanukkah”, which included Hanukkah stories and piyutimin Hebrew and Judeo Arabic (Wassertil, p. 172).
  7. In Buchara, the parents of the children in “heder” used to bring the teacher a present – wax candles. A betrothed young man would pay an official visit to his bride and bring her presents, just like on other festivals (Wassertil, p. 209).
  8. In Libya, the mothers would send sufganin (fried cakes which are called sfange in Arabic; similar to sufganiyot in Israel) to their married daughters, just like they sent them other foods on other Jewish holidays. Many families also brought these sufganin to the elderly in old age homes and to pupils and teachers in the “heder” (Wassertil, p. 379).
  9. In Egypt, the community would buy tallitot and tefillin for poor boys who were approaching the age of Bar Mitzvah. This included a big festival in the synagogue with sermons in honor of the occasion (Wassertil, p. 411).
  10. Rosh Hodesh Tevet always falls during Hanukkah. In Tunisia, this Rosh Hodesh was called “Rosh Hodesh for girls”. The housewives baked honey cakes. They sent food (mishloah manot) and presents to girls. A betrothed young man gave a present to his bride-to-be. In every house, they ate a festive meal in honor of Judith since, according to medieval versions of the book of Judith, she killed Holifernes on Hanukkah (Wassertil, p. 511; cf. Goodman, p. 156. Re. Judith, see Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 607:2 and David Golinkin, Insight Israel, Volume 2, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 53-55)
  11. In Persia, the children of the poor went from door to door on Hanukkah for gifts, in each case burning a wisp of grass in order to discourage the evil eye from visiting the household (Devora and Menahem Hacohen in Goodman, p. 156).

III) Hanukkah presents in the United States in order to compete with Christmas

As can be seen from the many sources quoted above, there were no “Hanukkah presents” in Europeor in Eastern lands, as is the common custom today. In recent years, Jenna Weissman Joselit and Dianne Ashton have shown that this custom was invented in the United Statesin the 19th century in order to compete with Christmas presents. Ironically, Stephen Nissenbaum has shown that Christmas presents are also a modern American innovation from the early 19th century! (Nissenbaum, Chapter 4; Ashton, p. 69, note 96)

Joselit shows that in 19th centuryAmerica, Hanukkah was totally neglected. Jews did not even know when Hanukkah occurred and did not light the candles. More and more American Jews began to give Christmas presents, including Yiddish speaking immigrants (Joselit, pp. 230-233).

Ashton says that the custom of giving gifts on Hanukkah seems to have started in the 1880s (Ashton, p. 97). At first, books were a popular gift (ibid., pp. 97-98, 102). Interestingly enough, books were also the most popular Christmas present in the early 19thcentury (Nissenbaum, pp. 140-155).

Ironically, it was the Yiddish press that encouraged Jewish immigrants to buy Hanukkah “presents” and the English word was quickly absorbed into Yiddish. By 1906, The Forverts advertised Hanukkah “presents” for sale and the religiously conservativeYiddishe Tageblatt urged Jewish parents to give gifts to their youngsters at Hanukkah to increase their enthusiasm for Hanukkah. The Tageblatt‘s most faithful advertiser explained that Christmas and Hanukkah gifts go hand in hand. On the other hand,Forverts editor Abraham Cahan warned Jewish immigrants against buying too many gifts on the installment plan and the Tageblattwarned its readers “we do not want death from pleasure!” (Ashton, pp. 112-113).

By the 1920s, the Yiddish press advertised Hanukkah “presents”, including cars, waffle irons, Colgate products, ginger ale, Aunt Jemima pancake flour for latkes, and even stock shares! (Joselit, pp. 233-234)

Miriam Iaacs and Trude Weiss Rosmarin wrote in 1941: “Jewish children should be showered with gifts, Hanukkah gifts, as a perhaps primitive but most effective means of making them immune against envy of the Christian children and their Christmas presents” (Joselit, p. 235).

In 1947, Rabbi Albert Gordon ofMinneapolisadvised parents to see to it that their children receive nicely wrapped gifts, and to make a ceremony of the distribution of the gifts every night to enhance the experience (Ashton, p. 197).

Synagogue gift shops began to sell Hanukkah presents, including 47 styles of menorahs from Ziontalis, chocolate latkes from Barton’s Chocolate after 1951, and chocolate coins wrapped in gold, i.e., an edible version of Hanukkah gelt (Ashton, pp. 198-199; cf. Joselit, pp. 237, 239)

Writers began to note that all the problems of the commercialization of Christmas began to manifest themselves at Hanukkah as well (Ashton, p. 199).

Reform Rabbi Morrison Bial admitted in 1971 that “in our desire to counteract the lure of Christmas, we have added extensive gift-giving, decorations of the house and a sense of… importance” to Hanukkah (p. 251).

Indeed, by 1990, Ron Wolfson and Joel Lurie Grishaver (The Art of Jewish Living: Seder Hanukkah, New York and Los Angeles, 1990, pp. 133-138) needed to give practical suggestions about how tolimit the number of presents and to change physical presents into spiritual gifts, such as making a family photo album, a Hanukkiah, Israel Bonds, giving a gift to tzedakah or a word game. Nonetheless, a cartoon from 2005 showed that for many if not most American Jews, Hanukkah “means we get presents” (Ashton, p. 275).

IV Sumary and Conclusions

In conclusion, we have seen a wide array of Hanukkah customs related to giving money and gifts to adults and children from the 16th century until today. Some of them, such as giving tzedakah and buying clothing or a tallit and tefillin for poor pupils, are quite beautiful. Some of the excesses of giving expensive presents every night of Hanukkah are not. As rabbis, educators and parents we have to find the right balance between making Hanukkah an attractive holiday to children and crass commercialism. This ideal was already hinted at in the earliest source about Hanukkah gelt quoted above. Paulina Wengerov’s mother gave her some shiny copper coins on the fifth night of Hanukkah – not on every night of Hanukkah – and this became a common custom in Eastern Europe. This is the spirit which must guide us as we give gelt or presents on Hanukkah.

David Golinkin
The First Night of Hanukkah 5775



I) In Europe

Simhah Assaf, Mekorot Letoledot Hahinukh B’yisrael, edited by Shmuel Glick, Vol. 2, New York and Jerusalem, 2001 (Hebrew)

Yitzhak Rifkind, Yiddishe Gelt,New York, 1960, pp. 102-107 (Yiddish; a total of 11 columns of sources!)

II) In Eastern Lands

Philip Goodman, The Hanukkah Anthology,Philadelphia, 1976

Asher Wassertil, Yalkut Minhagim, third edition,Jerusalem, 1996 (Hebrew)

III) In the United States

Dianne Ashton, Hanukkah in America: A History,New York andLondon, 2013

Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950,New York, 1994, pp. 229-243

Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, New York, 1996

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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