We’re all in the middle of Hanukkah celebrations right now, and we hope y’all are having a wonderful time eating latkes and playing dreidel! It’s also a great time to talk with your little ones about why we celebrate the Festival of Lights. Each of our traditions has a lot of meaning behind it, and now is the perfect time to pass along our Hanukkah traditions and what they really mean.
After driving the greek soldiers out of Jerusalem, the Maccabees cleaned up their desecrated Temple and lit a menorah to celebrate their victory and begin reclaiming their holy space. Hanukkah is not just a celebration of the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, it is a reminder of the miraculous victory of every-day Jewish people defending their faith from a well-trained Greek army.
It is said that after their triumph over the Greeks, the Hasmoneans minted national coins to commemorate their victory. These may have been the very first Hanukkah Gelt! These days, the tradition is full of deeper meaning. chabad.org explains it best:
“We read in the Talmud that the Chanukah lights are sacred and may not be used for any other purpose. The example given there is that one may not count money by the candlelight. Giving out Chanukah money—and not counting it near the menorah—is a reminder of the primacy of Torah, which is “more precious than gold and silver.”
- When discussing what a poor man is to do if he does not have enough money to purchase both Chanukah candles and kiddush wine, the Talmud states that Chanukah lights take precedence because they serve to publicize the miracle. The widespread custom of giving Chanukah gelt to the poor enabled them to get the money they needed for candles without feeling shame.
- The Hebrew word Chanukah shares the same root as chinuch, “education.” The occupying Greek forces were determined to force Hellenism upon the Jewish population, at the expense of the ideals and commandments of the holy Torah. Unfortunately, they were quite successful in their endeavor. After the Greeks were defeated, it was necessary to re-educate the Jews—to reintroduce a large part of the population to Torah values. Appropriately, during Chanukah it is customary to give gelt to children as a reward for Torah study.
- There is also a deeper reason for this age-old custom. In his record of the Chanukah events, Maimonides writes: “The Greeks laid their hands upon the possessions of Israel.” The Greeks invaded the possessions of Israel in the same spirit in which they defiled the oil in the Holy Temple. They did not destroy the oil; they defiled it. They did not rob the Jewish people; they attempted to infuse their possessions with Greek ideals, so that they be used for egotistical and ungodly purposes, rather than for holy pursuits. Chanukah gelt celebrates the freedom and mandate to channel material wealth toward spiritual ends. This includes donating part (10%) of the gelt to charity and using the remainder for kosher, wholesome purposes. Gelt giving is a great opportunity to teach your kids about this important Jewish value.”
We eat latkes, donuts, and other delicious oil-fried foods during Hanukkah to represent the miracle of oil! That one is a little obvious. But do you know why we eat cheese? The story involves an Assyrian General, a brave woman, and a lot of cheese!
The Assyrian General seized the only local supply of clean water for his troops, leaving the Jewish people who lived nearby to suffer and die of dehydration. He’d also taken notice of a beautiful Jewish woman, Judith, and invited her to eat with him alone. When she came, she brought her own kosher foods including lots of very salty cheese and wine. The General ate the cheese and drank so much wine that he fell into a drunken stupor and Judith was able to kill him and save her town.
You can read more about Judith’s heroic act here.