On the Jewish food scene: Chocolate: a traditional Hanukkah food?

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When we think about the traditional foods usually eaten on Hanukkah, we mostly concentrate on fried foods. After all, the miracle of the holiday – the vial of oil lasting eight days – focuses on oil. While fried foods might not be considered healthy, they are a wonderful holiday treat. I mean, latkes or sufganiyot (Israeli doughnuts): what’s not to like? But there is another food tradition that’s developed that we don’t talk about: eating chocolate.

No, I don’t mean the products you can buy that offer you eight nights of candy treats, although they are wonderful. (I’ve been lucky enough to be given two different kinds as presents.) I’m talking about gelt: the chocolate coins that are usually given to children, but which adults have been known to swipe for their own pleasure.

The original gelt was not chocolate, but real coins. Several reasons have been suggested for the custom: Some historians believe the gelt represents the treasures – including coins– given out to the population after the success of the Maccabean revolt. Others say that gelt symbolizes the coinage made by the ruling descendants of the Maccabeans. There are legends that the original gelt was used for gambling when Syrian Greek soldiers tried to stop Torah study: it was OK for Jews to gamble, but not to practice their religion, so when soldiers approached, they switched from study to games.

A large part of the holiday – really any Jewish holiday – is the giving of funds to the poor, in this case, to make certain that people could afford the oil or candles needed to perform the mitzvah of creating light for the holiday. Money was also needed for food so the holiday would be a joyous one. Others give funds to schools so children can learn about Judaism, something the Syrian Greeks forbade. Food and chocolate given to children after their studies help them learn the joy of studying Torah.

Whatever the reason behind gelt, it’s wonderful to share food and chocolate. It’s also an excellent reminder that we need to help those in need so they, too, can celebrate. Wishing everyone a Hanukkah as sweet as milk chocolate.