Parashat Miketz – Hanukkah 5778
“Thoughts about the Dreidel”
One of the famous customs of the Festival of Hanukkah is to play with the dreidel (in Yiddish) or sevivon (in Hebrew).
What is the dreidel?
The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top that children play with during Hanukkah. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter, forming an abbreviation for the Hebrew words נס גדול היה שם (”Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” meaning “A great miracle happened there”), referring to the miracle of the oil that took place in the Beit Hamikdash (Temple of Jerusalem).
In Israel, the fourth sides of most dreidels are inscribed with the letter פ (Pe), rendering the acronym נס גדול היה פה, (”Nes Gadol HayaPo,” meaning “A great miracle happened here”), referring to the fact that the miracle occurred in the land of Israel.
These letters were originally a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht (“nothing”), hei stands for halb (“half”), gimel for gants (“all”), and shin for shtel ayn (“put in”).
Why do we play with a dreidel during Hanukkah?
Many rabbis and scholars have tried to find an integral connection between the dreidel and the Hanukkah story. The standard explanation is the connection with the meaning of the letters that appear on the four sides of the Dreidel and the Festival of Hanukkah.
Another explanation is that Jews played with the dreidel in order to fool the Greeks when they were caught studying Torah, which was then forbidden.
Others rabbis explain it with elaborate gematriot (A gematria is an explanation based on the fact that every Hebrew letter has a numerical value) and find that the letters ‘נ’ג’ה’ש in gematria total 358, which is also the numerical equivalent of משיח or Messiah! ‘נ’ג’ה’ש is also the gematria equivalent of the sentence “God is king, God was king, and God will be king!” (This sentence is found in the Torah service on Shabbat and festivals). Finally, the letters ‘נ’ג’ה’ש are supposed to represent the four kingdoms that tried to destroy us: N = Nebuchadnetzar = Babylon; H = Haman = Madai; G = Gog = Greece; and S = Seir = Rome.
Another opinion is offered by Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, President of The Schechter Institutes, and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel, in his article, “Hanukkah Exotica: On the Origin and Development of Some Hanukkah Customs,” he reports that the origin of the dreidel game is not related to Hanukkah: “As a matter of fact, all of these elaborate explanations were invented after the fact. The dreidel game originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah; it has been played by various people in various languages for many centuries.”
Rabbi Golinkin states that the dreidel developed from an Irish or English top, introduced into Germany, known as a teetotum. The teetotum was inscribed with letters denoting the Latin words for “nothing,” “half,” “everything” and “put in.” In German this came to be called a trundl, with German letters for the same concepts. Adapted to the Hebrew alphabet when Jews adopted the game, these letters were replaced by shin, nun, gimel and hei. The letters served as a means to recall the rules of the game.
Regarding this game among the Jews, Golinkin says: “Furthermore, even among the Jews, this game has been called many different names. The Jews of medieval France and Italy seemed to have called this game—which was apparently not connected to Hanukkah— תם וחצי = whole and half; תם וחסר = whole and missing; or תם וכס = whole and half. In German, the spinning top was called a torrel or trundl and in Yiddish it was called a dreidl, a fargl, a varfl [= something thrown], shtel ein [= put in], and gor, gorin [= all]. When Hebrew was revived as a spoken language, the dreidel was called, גלגלן, חזרזר, כרכר גלגלון and סביבון, and the latter name is the one that caught on”.
He concludes: “Thus the dreidel game represents an irony of Jewish history. In order to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidel game—which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation! Of course, there is a world of difference between imitating non-Jewish games and worshipping idols, but the irony remains nonetheless.”
Therefore, we may say that the dreidel is another example of how the tradition enriches itself with customs taken from other societies, giving them a particular and relevant meaning. It is a good sign that the tradition is able to develop new customs, which tells us that the tradition is alive.
Something similar happens with the modern custom of giving gifts during Hanukkah. It is well known that it is a relatively new custom, taken from other cultures, but now it is a cherished Jewish custom, mainly for children. We may affirm that it is also an example of how new customs renovate and give more energy to a traditional festival.
I would like to add an additional thought about the dreidel. In the story of the Festival of Purim we are told that Haman chose to draw lots, “Purim,” in order to determine the most propitious month and day for attacking the Jews. In this story, the destruction of the Jewish people depended on the drawing of lots, on a gambling game.
On the other hand, during Hanukkah, when we celebrate the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem, we also play a gambling game, this time with the dreidel. Now that we are sovereign in the state of Israel, we have our land, where we are able to laugh, play, and have fun with the same game that would have been our destruction. This is like a person who experienced a trauma and after going through a psychologic process is able to elaborate on the trauma, cope with it and connect with that experience in a different and perhaps even a playful way.
Now that we, Jews, live our tradition freely, we are able to play and celebrate our holidays with happiness. Now it’s time to play with the dreidel, and to be thankful that we are able to do so. Let’s play the dreidel during this Hanukkah knowing that the future is in our hands.