”Gelt” is a Yiddish slang term which means “money.” In the Jewish tradition, gelt is often distributed as part of the Chanukah, also spelled Hannukah, observances which take place in the heart of winter. The term has also been used historically in parts of Europe to describe a reparation payment made to the family of a murder victim or to end a violent feud. However, for the purposes of this article, we will discuss gelt in the context of Chanukah traditions.
Money is an important part of any culture, and it has been an important part of Jewish tradition. For centuries, Jewish communities were unable to make their own money, because they lived in regions which were controlled by people of other faiths. In fact, Jewish coins were not minted between around 70 CE and the 1940s, when the Jewish state of Israel was established. Today, Israel mints special commemorative coins every Chanukah which are intended to be used as Chanukah gelt; this tradition has been picked up by some chocolatiers, who make gelt in molded chocolate and cover it in foil.
Originally, gelt was given to Jewish schoolteachers and instructors, who were often as underpaid as modern teachers. Chanukah gelt was an important part of a teacher's annual income in some regions, and it came to be closely associated with education. When families began giving gelt to children, the associations with education continued; children were rewarded in gelt for their educational performance in the previous year. Some families continue to maintain the connection with education by offering contributions to college or private school funds as gelt.
Gelt holds additional significance in Hanukkah tradition. For example, many Jewish families offer alms to the poor in the cold and difficult winter season, and some rabbis make a tradition of giving out gelt to the less fortunate in their communities. According to the Jewish faith, people must light candles on every night of Chanukah, even if they are forced to beg for funds to purchase them; gelt was one way to ensure that impoverished members of the community could light candles without feeling ashamed.
The tradition of giving gelt is traditionally linked with education and charity. Children who receive gelt are often expected to pass it on to the poor, or to save it for future use. Because Chanukah is so close to the Christmas, many people associate the holiday simply with gifts, when in fact Chanukah is part of a much older and much more complex tradition.