The story of the Dreidel

December 21, 2011 by  
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The Chanukah festival has three central motifs – light, miracles, bravery – which are expressed through the spinning of the dreidel. But how did this spinning top – a game so beloved by children and, let’s admit, by adults as well – become one of the main symbols of Chanukah?…writes Itzik Peleg.

Dr Itzik Peleg

The dreidel has four sides, with a Hebrew letter on each. In Israel, the letters are nun, gimel, heh, peh to represent Nes Gadol Haya Poh (A great miracle happened here). Outside of Israel, the letters are nun, gimel, heh, shin: Nes Gadol Haya Sham (A great miracle happened there). The miracle, of course, took place in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the year 174 BCE, when the small amount of oil remaining in an oil container burned for eight days.
A quick visit to Wikipedia reveals a somewhat laconic entry:
After lighting the Hanukkah menorah, it is customary in many homes to play the dreidel game: Each player starts out with 10 or 15 coins (real or of chocolate), nuts, raisins, candies or other markers, and places one marker in the “pot.” The first player spins the dreidel, and depending on which side the dreidel falls on, either wins a marker from the pot or gives up part of his stash. The code (based on a Yiddish version of the game) is as follows:
Nun – nisht, “nothing” – nothing happens and the next player spins
Gimel – gants, “all” – the player takes the entire pot
Hey – halb, “half” – the player takes half of the pot, rounding up if there is an odd number.
Shin – shtel ayn, “put in” – the player puts one marker in the pot.

This may be informative but something is missing. How and why did the dreidel game develop into such a central part of our Chanukah celebrations?
While some scholars claim the dreidel originated in India, others find its source on the island of Sardinia, where ancient Roman spinning-tops have been found.
Historical research tells us that the dreidel game first became part of Chanukah celebrations among the Jews of northern Europe (Ashkenazim). These Jews learned the game from their German neighbors, for whom playing such games brought light to the long, cold winter days and evenings. The Jews “Judaized,” or perhaps even “converted”, the dreidel by replacing the German letters with Hebrew letters to express an idea central to the holiday: the miracle. In fact, many customs and symbols of Jewish festivals have developed this way throughout the centuries.
A few years ago I spoke about the festival to a group of Israeli pensioners who originally hailed from Germany. With great excitement they recalled childhood memories of their gentile neighbors playing similar games; they hadn’t realized that they had found the source of the “Judaized” spinning top!
Over the centuries the dreidel game acquired another meaning, recalling the period when Antiochus forbid Jews to study the Torah. Jewish children kept dreidels near-at-hand while studying Torah so when Greek soldiers arrived, they could quickly hide the holy texts and begin playing with the dreidel. Thus, a game originally intended to brighten the long cold winter days in Germany became a Jewish custom emphasizing the meaning of Chanukah: both the miracle of Chanukah and the bravery of the Jews who were willing to risk life and limb to maintain their culture and religion.

Dr Itzik Peleg from Haifa University, who will be the Visiting Scholar at The Shalom Institute in Sydney next year

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