by David I. Bernstein, Ph.D.
Do you give Chanukah gifts?
Traditionally, Chanukah was not a time for giving gifts. Chanukah gelt (money) yes, but not gifts. Prof. Jonathan Sarna explains that Purim is the traditional time for gift-giving – mishloach manot. (He does not mention that those gifts are traditionally of an edible nature.)
Prof. Sarna claims that in the late 19th century, as Christmas became a national holiday in America and grew in stature, Jews began the practice of giving gifts on Chanukah. As consumerism has grown, that practice has also increased.
Is there anything wrong with this? Perhaps it should be seen a Jewish adaptation of a practice in general culture, which simply enhances a Jewish celebration.
In truth, even the more traditional practice of giving Chanukah gelt is relatively recent (17th century), and has no basis in Jewish law. Apparently, the custom began with parents giving small children money to give their teachers. From there, it was a short hop, skip, and a jump for children to receive the money themselves.
If one is going to give Chanukah gifts, then let it be not only an expression of love and caring, but also a reflection of the values of the holiday. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein taught me that the best Chanukah gift is a Jewish book. I agree, and would broaden it to anything that reflects/ increases Jewish culture: a subscription to a Jewish publication, a Jewish ritual object, a course in Jewish studies or adult education, a trip to a Jewish historical site, tickets to a Yiddish play, or Jewish apps and databases.
Like other Jewish holidays, Chanukah can be interpreted in many different ways. Different Jewish communities over the centuries (and today) have seen the holiday from different perspectives. American Jews have often seen it as commemorating the fight for religious freedom (fitting in quite neatly with American values), while Israelis are likely to relate to it as a struggle for political independence (echoing Zionist values).
Given the contemporary Jewish situation in the Diaspora, perhaps we should be emphasizing another aspect of this much-observed holiday: the right of a minority to maintain its own distinctive culture in the face of the hegemony of a dominant culture.
This last possibility may well resonate in an increasingly multi-cultural world, and is relevant for Israeli Jews as well. While we in Israel have the advantage of a Jewish language (among other things), most of us are nonetheless surrounded by a post-modern Western consumerist culture that has a greater impact on us than many of us would like to admit. Maintaining, deepening and renewing Jewish culture and cultural values is a struggle that is not only part of the Chanukah story of old – it is just as relevant today.
This Chanukah, give gifts that help to build a vibrant Jewish culture!
David I. Bernstein, Ph.D. is Dean at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.