From Gelt To Tzedakah

Candlelighting has begun, which in my house also means nightly check-writing or on-line contributing. The following article by me and Jeffrey Dekro, originally published in Tikkun, tells why.

For a festival consigned by the Talmudic rabbis to “minor holiday” status, Hanukkah has asserted itself over the past generation as hugely popular folk holiday. Among contemporary American Jews, menorah-lighting at Hanukkah is second only to the Passover seder in popularity (77% of all-Jewish households and 59% of inter-marrieds light candles; the figures for seders are 86% and 68% respectively, according to the last major Jewish population survey, the 1990 Council of Jewish Federations study).

There are two obvious reasons for this success. First, Hanukkah’s largely secular/historical nature spares many Jews the struggle with doubt and ambivalence that they feel during most religious holidays. Second, the gift-giving, dreidl-playing, “child-friendly” atmosphere of Hanukkah put it on a par with its competitive twin, Christmas, as a “season to be jolly.” For Christians at Christmast, however, jolity is ideally a channel to generosity — the redemptive kind shown by Jesus to nearly all comers. By contrast, Hanukkah speaks of national redemption through ferocious military struggle. What is there in this tradition to turn jolity into generosity — particularly towards the non-Jewish world?

I suggest that the custom of giving Hanukkah gelt, small gifts of money, be transformed into a major Torah of Money effort during this Festival of Rededication. Each night, a different Hanukkah theme can be explored for the purpose of guiding a tzedakah decision. By combining end-of-the-tax-year charitable giving with Hanukkah themes, families can be true to the rabbinic tradition (which emphasizes both Torah study and tzedakah during this season) and greatly heighten the tikkun olam element of their observance. For example:

1. Hanukkah coincides with the darkest nights year and has roots in ancient winter solstice festivals. Devote a discussion to Judaism and ecological issues — and give tzedakah to an environmental group.

2. Hanukkah embodies its symbolism through foods, especially fried potatoes (Ashkenazic) and dough (Sephardic) to represent the “miracle of oil” at the rededication of the Temple. Talk about the symbolism of food brands and the realities of food budgets. What does it mean to try to feed a family for 63¢ per person per meal (estimate for a family of four living at the federal poverty level of $15,100)? Give tzedakah to a hunger relief project.

3. “Women are obligated to light the Hanukkah menorah,”’ says the Talmud (Shabbat 23a), for they took part in the miracle.” One story tells of the daughter of the high priest, facing violation by the Syrian-Greek governor, who shames her brothers into revolt. A second story “borrows” the saga of Judith cutting off the head of the Assyrian tyrant Holofernes. Dedicate one night to a discussion of women and resistance — and give tzedakah to a feminist organization.

4. Hanukkah was truly a minor holiday until the new Zionist movement at the turn of the century began promoting an ideal of self-defense. Talk about the meaning of Jewish self-defense and security today — and give tzedakah to an Israeli peace group.

5. The Hanukkah menorah is to be publicly displayed in a window or doorway. Discuss the realities of pride and persecution for Jews, gays and lesbians, and other minority groups — and give tzedakah to a civil rights organization.

6. Hanukkah is briefly debated in the Talmud: Shammai urges lighting the candles in diminishing order, while Hillel urges increasing the light each night. Discuss the role of interpretation and creativity in Judaism — and give tzedakah to a Jewish arts or renewal organization.

7. Hannah and her children suffer martyrdom; Mattathias and his children make the revolution. Discuss issues of generational differences and continuity in Jewish life — and give tzedakah to a youth-empowering organization.

8. The Miracle of Oil — one day’s worth burning for eight days — is a wonderful metaphor for how human beings must pool resources to create prosperity. Have a discussion about the meaning of community — and give tzedakah to a low-income community development project.

In the days of extensive Jewish poverty in Eastern Europe and Lower-East-Side America, Hanukkah gelt brought a moment of opportunity to children who rarely had a penny of their own. In contemporary times of Jewish prosperity, a reconstructed custom of Hanukkah gelt can bring moments of insight to both kids and adults, as they spread the light of Maccabean activism to the world beyond.


Blogger Lao Qiao said...

Hanukkah has the darkest nights of the year not simply because of the winter solstice but because the months of the Jewish calendar begin on the new moon. Since Hanukkah starts on the 25th of the month (could Christmas be on December 25th because of Hanukkah?) it includes the last two days of the waning moon, four days without a moon, and the first two days of the new month. These moonless nights at approximately the time of the solstice are indeed the darkest nights of the year.
The Jewish and Chinese calendars begin months on the new moon, and then add an extra month 7 times every 19 years to keep the seasons at the same time of the year. Consequently, some Jewish and Chinese holidays coincide (although the leap years are not always the same, meaning they are sometimes a month off): Sukkot coincides with Autumn Festival; Tu b'Shvat with Lantern Festival, etc.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Judee said...

I'm sure you know that the gelt was given to children to give to their teachers ... how about that for tsedakah?

Also, it turns out that we're supposed to eat cheese, too, in honor of Judith, who plied Holofernes with salty cheese -- and the rest is history.

Last -- I do not like to give credence in any way, shape or form to the so-called miracle of the oil, a story created by the rabbis 300 years ex post facto. (I know you know, but it bears repeating.)

9:23 PM  

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