Hanukkah Gift-Giving Then and Now
“Is your Hanukkah shopping done?” Though the December crush to buy gifts seems practically primordial, would it surprise you to learn that the tradition as we know it today of giving gifts on Hanukkah is a relatively recent phenomenon?
From Halacha to history, Jewish values and practices concerning gift giving are complex and fascinating subjects. In the Torah, Proverbs states, “Sonei matanot yichyeh–One who hates gifts will live long.” Gift-giving was prescribed by Mordechai and accepted by the community in the Book of Esther, on the other hand, with mishloach manot—though one could argue the mitzvah ensures everyone can afford a Purim feast, and therefore, is not purely a discretionary gift.
Some say the tradition of giving Hanukkah gelt comes from the Talmud, which stipulates that everyone, including the poorest, must light Hanukkah candles. Giving Hanukkah gelt as tzedakah enabled a person who couldn’t afford candles to buy them. And in the Eastern Europe of the 17th century, there arose a tradition of giving teachers Hanukkah gelt, which then spread to the children who delivered the gelt from their parents’ homes.
In America, gift giving for Christmas expanded toward the late 19th century. That influenced increasing numbers of Jews living among gentile neighbors, seeing the same newspapers and billboards, and attending the same schools. By the mid-20th century, with continued assimilation and post-war prosperity, most Jewish families and children in the U.S. were all-in on the idea of Hanukkah presents.
But from the very beginning of this shift, angst and debate among Jews has centered on its upsides and pitfalls.
Aaron K., who grew up in Holmdel in the 1980s, says Jewish children could brag about outdoing their non-Jewish peers. “We would say that we got eight days of presents, while they only got one.”
It was not only in mixed neighborhoods, moreover, that children relished the extended gift-giving. “I got gifts every night, as far back as I can remember,” said Esther E., who grew up in a solidly Jewish North Bronx neighborhood in the 1950s and now lives in Old Bridge. “Nothing big—a piece of candy, a dreidel, maybe one bigger gift and seven smaller gifts. The whole holiday was exciting.” That was the standard among her Jewish neighbors, she recalled.
In a JTA article from 2011, Hanukkah And The Value Of Giving Gifts, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz says “gift giving, when done well, can serve to bring us closer together and provide a way for a giver to express additional love.” He adds that classic commentary on legal codes suggest, “When gifts are used to help foster relationships and to further a culture of giving, everyone wins.”
Rabbi Yaakov Tesser of Young Israel of Aberdeen-Congregation Bet Tefilah, says he gives money to his children, as do his in-laws, while his own parents give tangible gifts each year with a different theme. He recalls as a child being excited about the approach of Hanukkah with the anticipation of presents. “When you’re a child,” he said, “your eye is on the prize.”
“Our gifts were always toys,” Aaron said. “No socks,” said Esther, who still gives gifts to her adult children. “Just something I know they’d like.”
Nachman D., who is in his 20s, grew up in Montreal and recently got married and moved to our area, recalls his family would throw one big party, and he would receive one big gift. “This year,” he said, “I’m going to give my wife one gift every day.”
In his 2011 article, Rabbi Yanklowitz said we can make our consumption this holiday season more ethical, and his words ring true today. Among other ways, he suggests valuing the spiritual over excessive materialism, engaging in our shopping process respectfully and reconsidering how our giving brings us closer to others. We might also consider making our tzedakah contributions more integral in the spirit of our holiday giving. We can attach words of gratitude to our gifts that deliberately celebrate our most important relationships. Rather than fight for the last toy on the shelf, we can strive to give better.
Sue Kleinberg is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.