By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
The month of December is a particularly festive month. From bright lights decorating homes and streets, to holiday parties, huge storewide sales, and familiar songs emanating from radios and sound systems everywhere, the impact of the holiday of Christmas on our society is readily apparent to even the most casual observer.
As Jews in a largely non-Jewish society, during our own winter holiday, Chanukah, we are often swept up in the commercial aspect of this Christian religious holiday, namely, the prevalent custom of shopping and giving gifts. Interestingly enough, it was only in this past century that Christmas, and subsequently Chanukah, became more commercialized with a greater emphasis placed on shopping and significant gift giving. This puts us in an uncomfortable position—do we give gifts on each of the eight nights of Chanukah to please our children in light of the societal emphasis on presents at this time of year?
The custom of gift giving on Chanukah bears a closer look. If we go back to the rabbinic origins of Chanukah, we will see that there is no obligation for giving gelt (Yiddish for money) or gifts on Chanukah. While there is no explicit religious or historic significance of giving gelt, coins did play an important role in Maccabean history. When the Hasmoneans, who most of us know as the Maccabees, gained their independence from the Syrian Greeks, they minted coins as one symbol of their sovereignty. The custom of giving gelt seems to have emerged as a key part of the festival during the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe.
One of the initial traditions was to give Chanukah gelt to the local Jewish teacher to help support him for the great service he provided the community by educating its children. That tradition ultimately was expanded to include the giving of coins to children, probably to provide them with positive encouragement for taking their Jewish studies seriously. Believe it or not, in some countries, Jews do not give any gifts at all. It was only in America that the custom expanded still further to the giving of actual gifts.
How can we reclaim the—dare I say—renegade?—and overemphasized tradition of giving gifts, and return to the concept of supporting local Jewish teachers as a way of thanking them for their service? Here’s an idea you can try for tonight in lieu of giving gifts. The devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey impacted so many and its effects are still being felt, including by a number of teachers at Houston Jewish day schools who were flooded and did not have flood insurance. With help from some members of the Dallas Jewish community, a GoFundMe account has been set up to help these teachers by buying Target gift cards for them with the funds raised. The goal is to be able to give at least $250 to 50+ teachers. Donations will be accepted for as long as people are willing to give. For more information you can check out the page www.gofundme.com/brightenupthethirdnight.
As we “Brighten up the Third Night” for teachers in need and thank them for the gift of Jewish education they give our children daily, so may each of our observances of Chanukah continue to be be filled with the brightness of the Chanukah candles and the joy on each of our faces as we celebrate the miracle—and great blessing—of Jewish survival during the Maccabean era and in the 2000+ years since.
Chag Urim Sameach--a happy festival of lights to all!
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share