As this Hanukkah season approaches, the issue of gift giving rears its complicated head yet again. What do you think? Should we be exchanging presents at Hanukkah? Is gift giving an authentically Jewish tradition or are we adopting a Christmas practice and willingly participating in the hugely skewed overload of commercialism?
Let’s take a Jewish look a gift giving in general, then gift giving specifically at holiday time, and finally, gift giving at Hanukkah in particular.
Giving is very Jewish, to be sure. All of creation and life can be viewed as the ultimate gift that God bestows upon each of us. Existence is the original gift that God has extended to humankind. According to kabbalistic works, God’s name spelled in Hebrew, Yud Heh Vav Heh, symbolizes this act of splendid giving. The smallest of letters, Yud, represents a coin placed in the letter Heh. Heh, being five, represents the hand of God stretching out with the hook like-letter Vav to the human receiving hand, represented by the last letter in the Divine name, the Heh. This very name of God symbolizes giving. You may have heard of God as the First Mover. I would suggest that God is the First Giver.
God grants us each life and in turn expects us to perpetuate this giving pattern with a lifetime of kindness and generosity. This is no small matter. If we know God as giver and each of us is created in the image of God, then we are, if nothing else, charged to give. Bear in mind, I would not use the word charged lightly, and certainly not in this season. It may be a frightening foreshadowing of significant spending yet to come. But more on this later.
What may have indeed solidified us as a nation was our capacity to bring offerings and to present gifts. In the wilderness, immediately after the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the very first of many capital campaigns in our history was launched. The Israelites were asked to donate prized materials and precious metals for the construction of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle. This perhaps is the only time that fundraisers must beg donors to stop giving. According to the Book of Exodus, Chapter 36, the call was put out into the camp of the Israelites: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!”
So the people stopped bringing; their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.
This matchless demonstration of gracious and overwhelming generosity not only allows for the building of the holy Mishkan and leads to the descent of the Divine Presence; with openhandedness comes sacredness and an intimate proximity to the Holy One. Our nation was built, in no small part, through this munificence.
An observation: the very first verses of the Book of Exodus describe 12 separate tribes, each with their own house, who descend to Egypt. By the concluding verse, we have undergone an amazing transformation. We are the “House of Israel” upon whom the Divine Presence rests. I would suggest it is our capacity to give that solidified our people — we are a gift-giving group.
This notion, giving leads to holiness and intimacy, seems to apply to gift giving between people as well. Setting aside the obvious romantic nature of gift bestowal at betrothal, the act of exchanging presents is an act that engenders warmth and closeness.
On two occasions in the Bible, our people are urged to exchange gifts with each other. In the Book of Esther and Nehemia, the occasions are celebratory and indicative of closeness between community members and a time for great rejoicing. The practice described in the Book of Esther lives on today as we exchange gifts of food with one another on the holiday of Purim. The custom is understood as one that builds genial relations between people and leads to joyous camaraderie — it creates connection.
When giving gifts for family, Maimonides echoes Talmudic rabbis in codifying the general holiday practice of gift giving to spouse and children: they should fit each person. Some gift suggestions from the sages include wine, clothes, and nuts. I will let you guess which gift matches which category of relatives. Indeed, gift giving is a custom surrounding all holidays.
Holidays are wonderful, but rarely easy. The exchange of gifts between family members acknowledges each individual’s extra effort in preparing for the festival. It smoothes over many a tense moment and truly prompts closeness and intimacy. The peaceful holiness learned from giving found once in Mishkan of old makes its way into our homes with what is known traditionally as the mikdash me’at, the miniature sanctuary. We too can create a holy abode worthy of the Divine Presence.
In my family, as we raised our own children, we gave gifts at all holiday times: appropriate clothing or books fitting the particular celebration, and even a surprise new toy. It seemed to be in the spirit of the holiday state of mind. Moreover, this tradition precluded the exclusive association of gift giving with Hanukkah. All holidays should be occasions for loving gift giving.
Easily said now, but we may be a little late for this year. We all know that as Hanukkah approaches, we are facing a heavy-duty gift-giving season and if we have yet to do our ground work on the other holidays, we face the inappropriate association of our Hanukkah gift giving with the other December holiday. What recourse have we now?
I would suggest three strategies: first, recall that though gift-giving is fairly new, Hanukkah gelt, the giving of coins to children, is a reliable authentic tradition going back many generations, so we do have precedence for special Hanukkah giving. Second, make your gift-giving Jewish in nature — books, music and crafts. Finally, remember the poor.
No holiday is a happy one without the loftiest of all giving — helping the needy. Give your family the gift of giving. Arrange a family volunteer outing over winter break. Your kids will never forget the experience.
Giving can be deeply spiritual. It connects people and is a God-like practice with historic Jewish precedent. Let this be your guide; sincerely motivated giving brings people closer together; over-the-top, exhausting shopping does not. Plan accordingly.