Saturday, December 12, 2009


Growing up in America, one of my clearest memories from Chanukah was getting those foil wrapped chocolate coins - "gelt". Gelt means "money" in Yiddish, and there was an earlier custom of giving actual money on Chanukah (note that in Hebrew it is called דמי חנוכה  dmei chanuka - "Chanukah money). How did this custom develop? There are a number of suggestions:

a) for use when playing with the dreidel
b) it was first associated with giving charity on Chanukah, perhaps to help the poor buy candles
c) it was originally a gift to teachers, because of the connection between Chanukah and chinuch (education)

However, I'm partial to the explanation that the first Jewish coins were produced during Hasmonean times, and the custom to give out money came to commemorate that. Is it historically true - I don't really know. But since my kids happened to find this Hasmonean coin at an archaeological dig in Jerusalem earlier this year, I certainly have an emotional connection!

 What ever the reason - and please read this very funny article by Amy Klein about the development of giving both monetary and chocolate gelt - the custom has certainly become associated with Chanukah.

However, there's a little more to the story. If you had asked me not long ago, I would have guessed that gelt is related to "gold". But as we've seen here many times before, looks can be deceiving. Gelt has the following etymology:
Yiddish geld < MHG (a late-19th-c. borrowing): orig. (16th c.) < Ger or Du geld, but fell out of use except dialectically
Geld (as a noun, the verb has a different origin) appears in English as well, and derives from the German as well:
"royal tax in Medieval England," O.E. gield "payment, tribute" (cf. M.H.G. gelt "payment, contribution," Ger. geld "money," O.N. gjald "payment," Goth. gild "tribute, tax"), from PIE base of yield
Gold has an entirely different etymology - it comes from the Indo-European root *ghel, meaning "yellow".

But we do find more English words related to gelt. For example, guild:
c.1230, yilde (spelling later infl. by O.N. gildi), a semantic fusion of O.E. gegyld "guild" and gild, gyld "payment, tribute, compensation," from P.Gmc. *gelth- "pay" (cf. O.Fris. geld "money," O.S. geld "payment, sacrifice, reward," O.H.G. gelt "payment, tribute"). The connecting sense is of a tribute or payment to join a protective or trade society.
 And there may be a connection to what some might view as a very Jewish word, guilt:
O.E. gylt "crime, sin, fault, fine," of unknown origin, though some suspect a connection to O.E. gieldan "to pay for, debt," but O.E.D. editors find this "inadmissible phonologically.
I found this article about the history of gelt called "Gelt is Good". I assume they were trying to make a pun on "Guilt is Good" (which itself is a take off on the famous movie line "Greed is Good.") But I'm guessing that editor never thought that there was a possible etymological connection between the two words...

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