Saturday, December 17, 2011

From Hasmonean Coins to Hanukkah Gelt

Did the Maccabees mint coins? Their descendants, who became a royal family,  did. Not the yummy chocolate gelt pictured here. But have a look at these Hasmonean coins, and the front and back of this bronze prutah (BTW: the prutah coin was reintroduced shortly after the modern State of Israel was established).

Those Maccabees and their Hasmonean dynasty -- they really knew how to make a killing. Clearly, folks were ready to bet their money on them. Could it be that's why we give children Hanukkah gelt?

Maybe. While the word on the street is that the custom of giving Hanukkah gelt is rooted in Eastern Europe, I just discovered that some historians believe the practice does indeed connect to the Maccabees' minting of coins after they restored political autonomy to the Jewish people. It makes sense. The Hanukkiah reminds us of the burning oil miracle. Why shouldn't Hanukkah gelt remind us of self-rule?

Even if Hasmonean coins are NOT the source of this custom, detectives of Jewish religious law -- Halakha -- discovered that Rabbi Josef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch,  declared that the light given forth by the Hanukkiah's candles can only be used for one specific purpose: recalling the miracle of the oil. Counting one's money by the light of the candles was forbidden. To remember this prohibition, Hanukkah money was distributed.

Here's another interesting detective tidbit. The Talmud states that on Hanukkah every Jewish household must light at least one candle per night, even if they are poor and have to go door-to-door asking for candle money. To eliminate this embarrassment, a custom evolved of giving Hanukkah gelt to the poor.

So,  thank you Belgium for your premium chocolate used to mint our Hanukkah gelt. And thank you to all the manufacturers issuing these yummy coins. But most of all, thank you to all the Jewish history and halakha detectives who discovered the roots of this delectable custom.

Hanukkah Sameach.

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