Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

Borrowed Lives

Libi Astaire

On Chanukah we remember Chanah and her seven sons, who courageously gave up their lives rather than betray their faith. And on Chanukah we have the custom to distribute Chanukah gelt. What’s the connection between money and loyalty to the Torah? The lives of three fascinating Jewish women who lived during the Middle Ages provide an answer.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The custom of giving Chanukah gelt to children is one of those beloved customs whose origins are obscure. Some say it started in sixteenth-century Poland, when parents would give their budding talmidei chachamim a little money to give to their rebbeim to show their appreciation for the Torah being taught to their children — and the enterprising youngsters began to demand a “fee” for the transaction. Others quote the law in the Shulchan Aruch (673:1), which says that it is forbidden to use the Chanukah lights to examine coins or to count them, and wonder if scholars (and later children) were given gifts of money specifically on Chanukah so that they could have the opportunity to fulfill this once-a-year mitzvah.

Whatever the reason, Chanukah gelt symbolizes our love of Torah and dedication to the Torah’s study. But in order to give a gift of money to others, people first have to have money themselves. Who was the breadwinner in European Jewish homes of yore? Like today, many Jewish women worked so that their husbands and children could learn Torah full-time. And although women engaged in a variety of businesses — ranging from doing embroidery work in the home to engaging in trade — one of the most popular and lucrative jobs for women was to work as a moneylender.

Yes, you read right. While many people think of Shakespeare’s Shylock when they envision a Jewish moneylender — and Jewish men certainly did do this kind of work — the court and tax records that we have today show that women were surprisingly well represented in this profession.

But if the profits were high, so were the dangers, as three moneylenders from the medieval era — Minna of Worms, Pulcelina of Blois, and Dulcea of Worms — found out.


To read the rest of this story, please buy this issue of Mishpacha or sign up for a weekly subscription.

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

Not a Newspaper
Shoshana Friedman A deeper difference between newspapers and magazines
Services in Shards
Rabbi Moshe Grylak “Such a painful, malicious lie!”
The Pittsburgh Protests: All Politics All the Time
Yonoson Rosenblum The old rule — “no enemies on the left” — still applies
Danger: School Crossing
Eytan Kobre The hypocrisy of YAFFED’s assertion is breathtaking
Real Laughter and Real Tears
Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger The two sides of a life lived with emunah
Work/Life Solutions with Eli Langer
Moe Mernick I was proud to be “that guy with the yarmulke”
Is Ktchong! a Mitzvah? When Prayer and Charity Collide
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman These cannot both be done effectively at the same time
An Honest Shidduch
Jacob L. Freedman “Baruch Hashem I’m cured, and this will be my secret”
A Blessing in Disguise
Riki Goldstein “I never thought the song would catch on as it has”
Ishay and Motti Strike a Common Chord
Riki Goldstein Bringing together two worlds of Jewish music
What’s your favorite Motzaei Shabbos niggun?
Riki Goldstein From the holy and separate back to the mundane
Rightfully Mine
Faigy Peritzman Don’t regret the job you didn’t land; it was never yours
Growing Greener Grass
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Nurture your blessings and watch them blossom
My Way or the High Way
Rebbetzin Debbie Greenblatt We know what we want — but do we know what He wants?