Chanukah’s Sweet History


Money and Chanukah go way back, all the way back to the victory of the ancient Maccabees over the Syrian Hellenists. Our foil-covered chocolate gelt recalls the booty distributed by the Maccabean victors, including coins to Jewish widows, soldiers and orphans, possibly at the very first celebration of Chanukah, when the Temple was rededicated in 165 BCE.

In ancient Israel, striking, minting and distributing coins expressed Chanukah’s message of freedom. As the book of 1 Maccabees (15:6) records, Syria’s King Antiochus VII said to Simon Maccabee, “I turn over to you the right to make your own stamp for coinage for your country.”

One of those early Israelite coins, produced during the rule of Antigonus Matityahu (40-37 BCE), the last in the line of Hasmonean kings (descended from the Maccabees), portrays a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), a reminder of the centrality of the ancient Jerusalem Temple to the Jewish people and the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenists. It represented political independence and religious freedom.

In the sixth century, the legal text known as the Talmud taught that the poor must light Chanukah candles even if they had to wander door to door to beg for change to pay for the lighting materials, which in those days were probably oil, clay lamps, and wicks. Centuries ago, Yemenite Jewish children were given coins to purchase sugar and red food dye for concocting a special Chanukah wine.

The first recorded appearance of the word gelt may have been in 1529, and it came to be identified with Chanukah money. Giving gifts of coins at Chanukah had become customary. The Hebrew word Chanukah, which refers to the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, also came to be associated with the Hebrew word for education, chinuch. Gelt supported Jewish learning. In the days of the founder of chasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698–1760), rabbis often traveled to distant villages to give instruction to impoverished and illiterate Jews, generally refusing payment. At Chanukah time, the instructors accepted coins and other tokens of gratitude. Not so long ago, coins were the only gifts bestowed at Chanukah.

With so many ties between coins and Chanukah, it is not surprising to find chocolate in the mix. There was an early and fundamental joining of money and chocolate. Cocoa beans served as currency for pre-Columbian peoples. Columbus and his crew learned that those mysterious-looking “almonds” they first saw in the bottom of a canoe were coinage for the indigenous people of the Americas along the coast of Honduras in 1502. In 1513, Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez paid 100 cocoa beans to purchase a slave. In the New World, Westerners discovered that cacao was coinage and it grew on trees.

But opinions differ about how chocolate came to be associated with coins for Chanukah. According to Tina Wasserman, food writer for Reform Judaism magazine, 18th- and 19th-century Jews became prominent in European chocolate making and started the Chanukah chocolate coin custom. But Jenna Joselit, in her book, “The Wonders of America,” notes that with the increased purchasing power in the American Jewish community in the 1920s, Loft’s, an American candy company, responded by producing Chanukah chocolate.

Deborah R. Prinz’s book, “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao” was recently published by Jewish Lights.