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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.


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