Where does the custom of "Chanukah gelt" (of giving money to children) come from? My understanding is that the practice of giving presents is adapted from the non-Jewish holidays which occur in the same season. Is it just a non-Jewish carryover, or are there Jewish sources for the practice?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Giving Chanukah gelt is a long-standing Jewish practice, one which most certainly predates the modern-day gift-giving season. The basis for it, however, is actually not that clear. I’ll offer a few suggestions:
(1) Chanukah is a time when we celebrate Torah study – the wisdom of the Jewish people the Greeks sought to suppress when they forbade Torah study. Thus, the custom developed to reward children for excelling in their studies and as an incentive to continue (ArtScroll Chanukah p.108).
(2) There used to be a custom that poor children would solicit money for Chanukah – presumably so their families would have enough money to buy oil for the Chanukah lights (Magen Avraham 670). Perhaps this extended into a more general practice of providing all children with money – so as not to embarrass those families who could not afford the oil.
(3) There is a fundamental difference in worldview between Israel and Ancient Greece. Both appreciated the beauty of man, both physically and spiritually. Thus, Greece, as Israel, appreciated wisdom – the sciences, philosophy, drama, art, architecture, etc. The key difference was that Greece subordinated the spiritual to the physical. They saw man and his pleasures as primary. They appreciated spirituality and wisdom only in that they afforded man higher pleasures. Israel, by contrast, recognized the primacy of man’s soul, appreciating the beauty of the world only in that it complemented the spiritual and enabled man to serve God better.
This difference becomes most striking in our attitude towards money. Both Greece and Israel appreciated money. But whereas Greece would see it as a means of spending more on ourselves and enjoying higher pleasures, Israel rightly saw it as a means towards a higher ends. The Sages teach us that our patriarch Jacob, on his return to the Holy Land, endangered his life (at least slightly) to retrieve small vessels he had left behind (Talmud Chullin 91a). This stemmed from an appreciation that all our possessions are valuable, as they can be used for spiritual purposes. By contrast, an ancient Greek, who saw man’s body as primary and money only as a means of serving it, would never risk his life in any way for his money. We thus distribute coins on Chanukah to celebrate the higher appreciation of money the holiday afforded us (Rabbi Yochanan Zweig).
(4) For completeness, I’ll quote a final reason – although I’ve never found it very compelling. There is a law that we may not make use of the light of the Chanukah candles for our own needs (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 673:1). In illustration of this, the Talmud (Shabbat 22a) states that we may not count money in front of the candles. As a reminder of this law, parents would give their children coins on Chanukah, enabling them to observe the law of not counting them in front of the candles.
One thing which is clear from all the above reasons is that the Jewish custom is (and has always been) to give money, not presents. It’s very possible that the modern practice of giving gifts is a misconstruction of the original custom, which in fact was borrowed from the non-Jewish practice.