I am having a very hard time, as the holidays approach, with teaching my children the beauty of and not having them see it as a Jewish XБmas. This is especially difficult when all of their non-Jewish friends will be receiving endless gifts, and they expect that as well. I know it has become somewhat of a tradition to give children gifts during Chanukah, but is this really a Jewish custom? I donБt want this Jewish holiday to be reduced to great presents. Any advice? Unwrapped Dear Unwrapped, I am so glad you wrote, as you raised a very important question that many of us can relate to. You ask a very straightforward question: is gift-giving on Chanukah a Jewish custom? The answer, however, is a little less direct. There are no biblical or Talmudic roots to the concept of gift-giving on Chanukah of any kind. There is, however, an age-old custom to give gifts of gelt (money) to children on Chanukah, so that we can teach them to give some of it to charityБand just to keep things festive and happy. Some, in fact, have the custom of gelt-giving each weeknight of Chanukah. See: The concept of gift- or incentive-giving is prevalent throughout Jewish tradition, and does have a link to Chanukah. In order to make that link, we need to understand the meaning of why we celebrate on Chanukah. The Greeks, unlike the Persians in the story of, were not out to annihilate the Jewish people through the destruction of our bodies. The Greeks were after our souls. Their aim was to elevate the importance of physical matter over spirit, and to defile our belief in one. They wanted us to banish the concept of the divine, abolish study and adopt their Hellenistic perspective. So the battle we fought in the story of Chanukah was not just physical, it was also very spiritual. In order to defy the Greeks and emerge victorious, we needed to re-educate ourselves and strengthen our resolve in the learning of Torah and performance of GБdБs commandments. The word chanukah shares a root with the word lБchanech or chinuch, which means Бto moldБ or Бto educate. Б Education, especially the education of children, is the foundation of what we celebrate on Chanukah. writes that a child needs to be provided with an incentive to learn Torah.
He suggests that a child be given Бwalnuts, figs and honeyБ to sweeten his learning. And here is the connection with the concept of giving Chanukah gifts or gelt ). The idea of giving money is also an opportunity to teach the child about the concept of giving charity and helping those less fortunate than yourself. Educating a child is a huge responsibility. And while providing incentives for good behavior and growth in Jewish learning is encouraged, we have to be careful that the gift or incentive provided doesnБt overshadow the deed. The same idea applies with giving gifts on Chanukah. It is a very Jewish concept to increase in joy and celebration during festive holidays. We emphasize our joy by sharing Chanukah meals with friends and family, by decorating our homes with the lights, and by celebrating with songs and gifts. We also emphasize our joy by sharing the story of Chanukah and deepening our understanding of it and its meaning in our lives. That is the essence of Chanukah. The (potato pancakes) and dreidels (spinning tops) and gifts are fun, but they are extras. It is possible, however, to highlight the meaning of Chanukah through gift-giving. For example, giving your kids books or tapes or videos about the story of Chanukah, so they understand what it is weБre celebrating. Or, by drawing attention to the concept of the triumph of light over darknessБanother powerful theme of the Chanukah storyБyou could invite your kids to bring БlightБ where it is dark. You could, for example, make a project and bring it to a retirement home and brighten up someoneБs day, or hand out cookies or latkes or winter coats to homeless people, or teach another Jew about our Chanukah traditions and invite them in to make a blessing over the candles with you. It is possible, however, to highlight the meaning of Chanukah through Since we increase in light each day of Chanukah, we can teach our children to increase in their work of spreading light as well, and each day of Chanukah to do some act of giving. There is no limit to the creativity factor here, and IБm sure your kids can offer some wonderful ideas as well. The bottom line is: if we expect our children to really get into the spirit and meaning of Chanukah, we have to provide them with that venue.
Now is the time to brush up on your knowledge of Chanukah and explore some of its deeper teachings (, which is a phenomenal resource). ItБs okay to give gifts on Chanukah, as long as they are given with the purpose of drawing a child close to his or her roots, and that the act of giving speaks louder than the gift itself. Have a wonderful Chanukah! Yes, but preserving identity is key Rabbi Neal Schuster, senior Jewish educator, KU Hillel, 722 New Hampshire St. : The plain answer to this question is, yes, Jews, particularly in America, do give gifts for Hanukkah in a way that is similar to Christmas. Yet, if you read any of the countless books on Jewish practice, or examine traditional texts on Hanukkah, you will search in vain to find instructions on the proper giving of gifts for Hanukkah. ItБs just not there, and the reason is because giving gifts for Hanukkah is a recent, mostly American phenomenon, one that owes much to the influence of Christmas. There are valid reasons to regard this practice with cynicism, viewing the adoption of this Christian custom as running exactly counter to the point of Hanukkah, with its emphasis on remaining true to our ways in the face of the appealing customs of the larger culture. We might also point out that the traditional Jewish holiday for giving gifts is Purim, in the spring. But there are some reasons to view Hanukkah gift-giving in a positive light. Consider the alternative: Without Hanukkah gift-giving, how many Jews would simply join in the spirit of the season by giving Christmas gifts to each other? Thus, Hanukkah gifts serve as an important vehicle for identity-preserving acculturation (as opposed to identity-sacrificing assimilation). We can also connect Hanukkah gift-giving to the ancient custom of giving Hanukkah БgeltБ (money), which likely originated as gifts to the poor so they would be able to light candles to celebrate the festival. In a contemporary echo of this custom, many Jews anonymously БadoptБ one or more poor families (Jewish or Christian), buying gifts for them to help add joy to their holiday.
Is it OK for Jews to give gifts for Hanukkah? If we can give while remaining true to our people, our values and our God, then, by all means, give. Б Send email to Neal Schuster at schuster@kuhillel. org. Sure, but focus on holidayБs meaning Rabbi Moti Rieber, Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive: Of all the holidays on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah has arguably been the one most affected by life in America. What was once a relatively minor holiday has, in recent years, become a Much Bigger Deal. Countless American Jewish families have had to explain to their children, БNo honey, we donБt celebrate Christmas Б no Santa, no tree, no HandelБs БMessiahБ Б but we have something great also: Hanukkah! Б Not always convincing, to parents or children. ItБs worth remembering what Hanukkah celebrates. Many years ago, a small Jewish group defeated a much more powerful army that wanted to outlaw their way of life. When the Jewish victors went to light the menorah (candelabra) in the Holy Temple, there was only enough oil for one day. Miraculously, it lasted for eight. If the kids like БStar Wars,Б they might like the idea of the ragtag group of rebels defeating the Empire. But even then, theyБre going to expect presents. One thing I can tell you doesnБt work is eight presents for eight nights. That kind of thing only plays into the consumerism and greed that (excuse me) has affected Christmas. Certainly, one night can be dedicated to the latest and greatest toy or game Б IБm not suggesting deprivation. But dedicate the other nights to more lasting values: hospitality to friends and neighbors Б including the traditional food of fried potato pancakes, or latkes; giving to those less fortunate, called tzedakah; fun family activities, like games (donБt forget the dreidel! ), crafts or playing that great new video game Б together. So sure, include the presents, but also remember what makes Hanukkah worth celebrating in the first place: the miracle of GodБs help, the wonder that weБre still the Jewish people after all these years and the fact that we live in this amazing and wonderful country. Б Send email to Moti Rieber at moti. rieber@gmail. com.