For the week ending 4 December 2010 / 26 Kislev 5771

Chanukah Gelt

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Michal

Dear Rabbi,

My husband and I are not really sure what’s appropriate gift giving for Chanuka. Clearly the kids will be there when we light the menorah every night, we’ll tell them about Chanukah, and get them some books. But are they supposed to get gifts/gelt/how often/how many? What's too much and what's too little? My husband grew up not celebrating Chanukah and I grew up getting multiple gifts every single night of Chanukah - neither of which seem acceptable to us. We would really appreciate some insight and direction. Thank you in advance.

Dear Michal,

The extent of gift-giving on Chanukah is a difficult problem for all parents in predominantly Christian countries where such a great emphasis is placed on presents at this time of the year, and particularly in Western, consumer-oriented society.

The more that Jewish children are exposed to this present-under-the-Christmas-tree culture, the more challenging the problem becomes. Therefore, this is one of many reasons why in general it is very important to make sure children get a strong Jewish education, part of which should equip them to maintain Jewish values while being surrounded by a largely non-Jewish environment.

At home, before and during Chanuka, you should be explaining to you children in a way each child can understand, that the main theme of Chanukah is about the way in which non-Jews attempted to impose their culture and values on the Jewish People against their will, and how the Jews resisted this with great self-sacrifice. While the ancient Greeks espoused this-worldliness to the point of excessive indulgence and impurity, the Jews sought to cultivate spirituality and holiness.

Explain that today, the general situation is different, but the dynamic and the dangers are the same. Chanukah is not about grandiose gifts, glittering decorations and gluttonous consumption, but rather about kindling and revealing the spiritual light out of this culture of darkness. Its message is our hope that no matter how small and seemingly unimpressive this light may be, the simplicity, purity and holiness of this light will eventually illuminate the entire world.

I suggest you really try hard to create the proper environment at home to inculcate these values – and a great part of this is the example you show as parents. During Chanukah make every effort to show your children that your Jewish home is more important than your work and other interests. Make every effort to come home as early as possible to spend the evening together as a family – and this means shutting off the TV, computer, and even the phones.

Teach your children to love the lighting of the menorah not because it’s accompanied by gift giving, but through your beautifying of the mitzvah and fulfilling it with joy. Include them in the mitzvah of lighting as well, according to what’s appropriate for each age. Afterwards, eat a festive meal together, read books and stories about the holiday and play fun, Jewish games together.

That being said, children are children, and Judaism does harness their desire for sweets and presents toward appreciating holidays. One small gift per child (and books should be viewed as gifts) on a few of the eight nights, and/or one or two larger gifts to be shared by several children, together with some occasional sweets seems just fine. If you anticipate the kids getting gifts and sweets from other sources like school, grandparents, etc., than these should be factored in to the total and there’s no reason kids should expect a set amount from the parents plus these “windfalls”.

In all cases, you should (politely) regulate the type and cost of the gifts to ensure they are harmonious with Jewish values. If the gift-giving is modest and in moderation, and if it is done within the context I’ve described, the gifts will enhance the holiday rather than the holiday becoming the conduit through which to get gifts.

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