Question: Non-Jews distribute gifts at Christmas to their friends and family. What is the halacha about and reasoning for Jews to distribute gifts at Chanukah to friends and family? Growing up, we used to get Chanukah gelt rather than gifts from my parents.
Answer: I have heard the following many years ago from Rabbi Mordechai Meyer, zt”l, the Roumanisher Rav (Rabbi in the Roumanisher Shul on New York’s Lower East Side). In order that the nations of the world not have the argument that if only they were offered the Torah, they would have served G-d even better than the nation of Israel, G-d first offered the Torah to them.
The Midrash (Sifrei Vezot HaBeracha 2) relates how, when the Torah was offered to each of the nations, they asked, “What is written in it?”
When the sons of Esau were approached, in response to their query Hashem answered, “Lo tirzach – You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). They responded, “This we cannot accept.”
Each of the nations in turn found a mitzvah that was unacceptable to them.
On the other hand, Bnei Yisrael did not ask what was in the Torah, rather we said in unison, “Everything that Hashem has said we will do and we will listen (na’aseh v’nishma).
Rabbi Meyer asks: If so, how is it that the children of the people who so blindly accepted the Torah can be found guilty of transgressing the same sins that were the very reason that the other nations could not accept the Torah. Do we not have a rule ma’aseh avot siman l’banim (Bereishit Rabba 70:6), what the fathers do is a sign and example for the children? Surely, then, the children of those who accepted the Torah so completely should never be found in any transgression.
Rabbi Meyer answers his question by explaining that perhaps that would be a steadfast rule had our people always been completely separated from the nations in our own land, never exposed to alien influences. (Recall that as recently as the start of King David’s reign, the Jebusites still occupied parts of Jerusalem.) However, since we now are interspersed among the nations, such an assumption has no basis.
Indeed, it would seem that in our society the old Yiddish idiom applies: Vee ess kristaltzach ess Yudeltzach – As the Christians do, so do the Jews. Sadly, their customs affect us when we live among them. Just as they give presents during their holiday, so do many Jews – especially when we live in a consumer society that promotes excessive consumption and gift-giving at this time of year.
Lest one think that perhaps this is proper, which it certainly is not, we cite the following for what we see as the basis of our custom of giving maot Chanukah – Chanukah gelt.
Sefer Yesod Shoresh Ha’Avodah (Inyanei Chanukah) cites Tikunei Zohar (72b), “… Mi barah eleh – who created these…” What is meant by ‘eleh – these’ in “Eleh mo’adei Hashem – These are the festivals of Hashem” (Leviticus 23:4). What are these festivals? Pesach, Sukkot [and Shavuot]. These are three, and [what are] the three others? Rosh Hashana, Chanukah, and Purim. Three we derive from ‘mo’adei Hashem’ and the three others from (23:3 supra) “… eleh hem mo’adei.”
We thus see that Chanukah, according to our Sages, is considered a festival. We also find in Parashat Re’eh (16:11), “And you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d, you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your bondwoman, the Levite found within your gates, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your midst …”
Thus, we see that when we rejoice during the festivals, we are to include those less fortunate who do not have the means of their own to properly rejoice.
We find the following halacha in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 671:1), “One must be very careful in the lighting of the Chanukah candles, and even one who is destitute and receives his support from charity must borrow [to buy oil] or even sell his garment to buy oil in order to light.” Thus, we surely must aid them and give them the ma’ot Chanukah (money) so that they will be able to fulfill their obligation to light the menorah.
Rabbi Aaron Wertheim, zt”l, late Rav of Bnai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park, Brooklyn, in his work Halachot veHalichot b’Chassidim, explains in the section on Chanukah and Purim: “‘On Chanukah,’ says R’ Pinhas of Korets, ‘the hidden light of the messiah is revealed.’ One must therefore guard this light against the destructive forces, so that the ‘externals will not seize it,’ says the Maggid of Koznitz, ‘and therefore one recites yosheiv beseiser at the time, this being a psalm against evil forces. Furthermore, ‘Chanukah is the conclusion of Yom Kippur, and on Chanukah one is able to change the ruling of barren men and barren women, as is the case on Rosh Hashana’ (‘Matisyahu’ equals 861 in gematria, and that is also the gematria of Rosh Hashana). Chanukah and Purim can cause evil people to yield, and the repentance of those who were rejected during the Ten Days of Repentance is accepted until the very last day of Chanukah.” And surely one of the means of repentance is via tzedaka – charity.
Magen Avraham (Orach Chayyim 470) cites the prevalent custom that poor youths go out from door to door to collect alms on Chanukah. Bnei Yissaschar (Ma’amarei Chodesh Kislev) offers the explanation that the indigent go from door to door on Chanukah in search of alms because “the majority of the poor are [spiritually] from the tribe of Simeon. Simeon and Levi were scolded by Jacob when he said (Vayechi 49:7), “… Achalkem beYaakov ve’afitzam b’Yisrael – …I will separate them in Jacob and spread them throughout Israel” and they will be scribes, teachers, and the indigent. It is known that the inherent trait of Joseph is the [mitzvah of] Brit Kodesh [and his abiding and sanctifying it by subduing his desires – for example, in the matter of the wife of Potifar] and its petach haguf – doorway to the body, as it states in Zohar… and since Simeon [and Levi] said [see Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel] “And now let us kill him…” (Genesis 37:19), referring to Joseph, who is the ‘doorway to the body.’ They sought to destroy the conduit – which is the source of spiritual influence, literally, the door of the body, therefore, they must circulate from door to door for their needs.
“However, the Tribe of Levi rectified their sin at the time of the sin of the golden calf when they responded with great self sacrifice to Moses’ call ‘Mi L’ashem elay … – Whoever is for Hashem, approach me’ (Exodus 32:26). Through Levi’s action, a great light arose [representative of the light of Chanukah]. Simeon, on the other hand, [and the poor he represents], did not exhibit any such self-sacrifice; thus, it is his lot to go from door to door on Chanukah, and this situation, which they accept willingly and lovingly, is Simeon’s rectification.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l, was scrupulous to give Chanukah gelt on the fourth or fifth night of Chanukah as per the custom of the Baal HaTanya (see Hosafot to Shulchan Aruch Harav,Orach Chayyim).
There is also a legend about the gelt being a reward for the children agreeing to study Torah in the caves despite the Greek law forbidding it. The children brought dreidels along and when their lookout spotted a soldier coming, they hid their texts and played dreidel.
The concept of the dreidel, according to Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Sperling (sefer Taamei Ha’minhagim u’Mekorei Ha’dinim; Inyanei Chanukah: 859), is that it is held and spun by its handle from the top, because the salvation occurred completely from above, with very little intervention (proper prayer and repentance) from below. This, he notes, is in stark contrast to the Purim groger (noise maker), that the children swing at the mention of Haman’s name, which is swung while being held from below, because on Purim the salvation came from the great effort of Klal Yisrael in beseeching Hashem.
As to the four letters found on the dreidel – nun, gimmel, hey, shin, Bnei Yissachar (sefer Matamim; 26) explains (quite different from the popular belief that they stand for nes, gadol, haya, shom,) that this stands for the word Goshnah, found in the verse (usually read a week or two after Chanukah) in Genesis 46:28, “Ve’et Yehudah shalach lefanav el Yosef lehorot lefanav Goshnah – And he sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to prepare for him a place in Goshen…” Rashi cites a midrash that “lehorot” should be read literally, implying that Judah was to establish a beit hora’ah – a study place for the law, a yeshiva. Thus, it’s possible that this was the subject matter, at that time of year, during the Greek persecution, when they forbade Torah study. Thus, the children were rewarded with Chanukah gelt that they “won” as they learned Torah aided by playing with their dreidels.
It is up to us as parents and grandparents to ensure our children appreciate a meaningful and Torah-true Chanukah despite influences and pressures from the secular world.