By CJ Srullowitz
We have this argument, er, discussion every year.
“Why can’t we get Chanukah presents?” my children want to know.
“Because,” I explain, “there’s no such thing as Chanukah presents.”
“But all our friends are getting Chanukah presents,” they protest.
“Maybe you need other friends,” I suggest. This suggestion, as usual, does not yield anything productive. The conversation devolves to the point at which I silence everyone by threatening to move the family to Lakewood.
“But so many people give Chanukah presents. Is there really no source for that?” my wife asks innocently.
“Sure there is,” I inform her. “It’s called Xmas.”
My son, burgeoning talmid chacham that he is, tries a different tack with me. There is a mitzvah, he insists, to buy your children presents for all holidays. True, I admit, there is such a mitzvah, but it only pertains to the shalosh regalim of Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos, where there is the command, “Vesamachta bechagecha-And you shall be happy on your Festivals.” Those gifts usually come in the form of new shoes or a tie. Besides, I remind him, when was the last time he protested not getting a gift for one of the regalim? Furthermore, I chided, what about Purim? I have yet to be asked for a Purim present.
Giving gelt, on Chanukah, yes. That seems to be a long-standing practice, though how it initially came into being is subject to much conjecture. But gifts? Nuh-uh.
Before Chanukah, I listened to a fascinating shiur by Rav Moshe Meiselman, shlit”a, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Jerusalem. He referenced the gemara in which Chazal asked Hashem to eliminate the yeitzer hara for avodah zarah, and Hashem acquiesced. The Medrash in Parshas Noach says that, with idolatry eliminated, the people of the world needed something through which their spiritual needs could be met. Ideally, the Torah should have filled that role. But because the Jews weren’t fully faithful to the dictates of Torah, they allowed Greek culture to be introduced throughout the world (via Alexander the Great’s conquests) and missed the opportunity to spread the “light” of Torah to the nations. Instead, “Christianity-a corruption of Torah-filled the void.”
Every year, the Chanukah lights are rekindled to remind us that we must see the world through the lens of Torah and not through the lens of foreign cultures. And yet, here we are, two thousand and some odd years later, and we wish to introduce into Chanukah a Christian minhag of gift-giving. The irony is too much to bear!
But perhaps we can turn the tables.
In researching the custom of Chanukah gelt on hebrewbooks.org, I came across a sefer, Leket Hachanukah (Jerusalem 2010) by R. Menashe Ben Zion Cohen, in which he tells the following story about Rebbe Mordechai of Lechovitch: “One time, after lighting the Chanukah lights, he turned to the chasidim who were around him and said, ‘Now is an eis ratzon and everyone can ask for whatever he wants for his avodas Hashem.’ The chasidim asked, each one his request.”
Here’s how I picture the scene: an elderly, saintly-looking man with a snowy, white beard, sitting by the Chanukah lights, as his chasidim line up and approach him, one by one, with an individual request for Chankah.
Hmm… Why does that sound familiar?
A little historical digging turns up the fact that Rav Mordechai died in 1810. More digging turns up the fact that although Santa Claus-or an ancestral precursor of him-may have existed prior to the eighteenth century, the popular shopping mall version of Santa, who takes gift requests, “has been credited to James Edgar, as he started doing this in 1890 in his Brockton, Massachusetts department store” (Wikipedia.org).
I don’t know if James Edgar knew of the Chassidim of Lechovitch. I don’t know if there were any Chassidim at all in Brockton, Mass. (20 miles south of Boston) in 1890. I don’t even know if there were Jews there at that time. However, it’s not impossible to imagine that somehow he took the idea from Rav Mordechai’s followers.
So for now the rule in my house remains, No Presents. However, if my kids want to go to the mall and ask the old man with the white beard for a present to help them achieve their avodas Hashem, perhaps there’s room to be meikil.