Words from the Rabbi – Chanukah 5783

On Sunday, we celebrated a wonderful pre-Chanukah event inspired by Chocolate. It was wonderful to see so many children crafting their own chocolate treats, making dreidels, and learning about the Jewish history of chocolate. For the adults, learning from Michael Leventhal about Jewish involvement in cocoa and chocolate through the centuries was deeply fascinating (not to mention delicious!). Thank you to all who helped organise these wonderful programs!

The connection between Chanukah and chocolate is a relatively recent one, with the chanukah gelt treats we know and love being first invented in roughly 1921 in the USA. Before that, gelt referred not to chocolate but to actual money, given to Jewish children long before the custom of general gift-giving was connected to the holiday.

There seem to be various historical reasons why money was given to children at Chanukah starting from the 18th Century, but looking back at the custom, I found a teaching from R’ Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the third Belzer Rebbe who died in 1926, which really spoke to me. It may not be the historical origin of the custom but I nevertheless found it helpful.

The teaching is based off the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 23b, which discusses the priorities a person should have if they cannot afford both Chanukah lights and Shabbat lights, but must choose between them, or can’t have both Chanukah lights and wine for kiddush. Rava concludes that the Chanukah lights trump these other considerations, because of the importance of publicising the miracle.

Thankfully today candles are cheap, but even so such decisions are becoming more real for many as the cost of living crisis worsens. The idea of prioritising the lights of chanukah suggests to me the importance of hope in the darkness. As the candles bring light to the world, we remind ourselves that there is always hope in hard times.

Yet the difficulties in affording oil or candles for lighting has often been very real for our people. It is from this perspective that Rabbi Rokeach explained the principle of giving money to children:

Jewish law requires that one who lacks the funds for Chanukah candles go to the length of even selling his clothes in order to obtain the money necessary to purchase candles and perform the commandment. The custom therefore developed to give tzedakah, charity, to the poor on Chanukah, to make sure they have enough money for the commandment…The Belzer Rebbe indicates that a reason we give chanukah gelt to children (and others) on Chanukah is to create a blurring of who is receiving money for what purpose. In other words, in order to avoid embarrassing the poor, Chanukah gelt is distributed to everyone (needy or not), so that is will be unclear who is receiving the money as tzedakah.

From the 21st Century perspective, it’s easy to get lost in the commercialisation of the season. As Christmas has been overrun with capitalism and the idea that one should spend money on friends and family, so too has Chanukah. I know that I will be giving my children presents this year, as every year, partly as a way of trying to fend off the Christian festival that so permeates December.

The Belzer Rebbe tells us that it’s okay to give money or presents to our family and friends, but that that is not the essence of Chanukah. The true point is to support those in need, to give Tzedakah. Other gifts are just a way of supporting the poor in a subtle way, so that no one need feel bad about their situation.

As I discussed at Kol Nidrei, I believe that we as a Jewish community should be doing more to help others. We’ve done some good work in the past, especially, in recent years, efforts to support the local food bank led by Deborah Syme, but there’s so much more we could be doing. If tzedakah is something you’re passionate about, or you feel keen to volunteer and bring a little light into a dark world, do let me know.

The Shul council and I are working on more ways to do Tzedakah together as a community, and we hope to have more news to share on that soon, but in the mean time, remember that Chanukah is not primarily about gifts, gelt or chocolate, but about helping other people feel hope in the darkness.

Happy Chanukah!