Chanukah Cash Celebrates Victory and Freedom

calendar iconNov 29, 2021

Chanukah—the Jewish festival of lights—has begun, and cash plays a key role in its traditional celebrations.

The festival commemorates Jewish triumph in a battle against the Ancient Greeks that won them the right to practice their religion freely. With their rituals banned under Greek law and their temple looted and profaned, a small group of Jews known as the Maccabees rebelled and fought a prolonged campaign against the Seleucid army. Upon their victory, they rededicated the temple and lit an oil lamp. According to the legend, though the lamp only held enough oil for one day, it burned for eight, meaning Chanukah celebrations last eight days.

‘Chanukah Gelt’—cash given to children—is a longstanding part of the festival, with Rabbi A.P. Bloch describing its traditional origin as being rooted in a 17th-century Polish practice of giving money to young people that they passed on to their teachers in gratitude for their work. In time, Bloch says, the practice evolved to see the children given coins to keep for themselves, and rabbis encouraged the custom to help spread the story of ‘the miracle of the oil’. Other legends suggest a link to special coins minted by the Ancient Jews in celebration of their victory.

While chocolate coins have grown in popularity since their introduction by American chocolatiers in the 1920s, for obvious reasons, real money is an enduring favourite with children and continues to be widely distributed. A 2007 survey by Bank Leumi found 70 percent of Israeli households favoured cash as a Chanukah gift for children, with around a third also giving toys, books, clothes or sweets.

Last Updated: Jan 17, 2022