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סביבון, סוב סוב סוב

Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel ...

One of the well-known "customs" of Chanukah is that children (of all ages) play dreidel while the menorah lights burn. The dreidel is a four-sided top, with the letters nun, gimmel, hey, and shin. (You can ask papijoe what that stands for. ;) The dreidel has evolved into an iconic symbol of Chanukah. More than a few popular songs revolve around the dreidel; DWT even reported learning the dreidel song as a boy.

The game itself is described here:

How to Play-
Step 1 - Each player puts one token into the pot.
Step 2 - Each player takes turns spinning the Dreidel.
Step 3 - Depending on the way the Dreidel falls the player responds accordingly.
  • Shin - player must put one token into the pot
  • Hey - player takes half of the pot.
  • Gimel - Player takes the pot.
  • Nun - Nothing Happens. Next players spins.
Step4 - First player to reach 0 tokens looses.

At first glance, it seems strange to teach children to play a gambling game. Gambling is, at the very least, frowned upon in Rabbinic Judaism. The Mishna (Sanhedrin 24a) lists mesachek b'kubya - a dice player - as one of those disqualified to give testimony. (Another opinion in the Mishna is that it only a full-time gambler who is disqualified. The Gemara gives two possible reasons: either because they are not gainfully employed, or because it is a form of thievery - Chazal, with their unique insight into human psychology, are saying that when one gambles, deep down he expects to win, and thus, is not giving up his money with all willingness.) It can be argued that the game of dreidel is just a game, and not really gambling, but what is its significance?

When I was a child, the explanation that I was taught was that Jewish children would gather to learn Torah despite Antiochus' edict against teaching and learning Torah. When Greek soldiers came to check on what they were doing, they would show them that they were just playing a game of spinning tops.

Rabbi Eytan Feiner has a fascinating article comparing and contrasting the grager that we spin on Purim, and the dreidel of Chanukah.
In the days of Purim, their lives hanging on a delicate thread, the Jewish People united in sincere prayer and repentance to create an inspiration from below worthy of God's promise to reciprocate. Their collective efforts to rescind the harsh decree issued against them were successful in opening up the gates of heaven for many hidden miracles that brought about their salvation. With the tremendous effort of repentance on the part of the Jewish People, Haman was subsequently destroyed.

Thus while reading the Scroll of Esther on Purim, we spin the grager from below upon hearing Haman's name to proudly demonstrate that the Jewish people initiated the overwhelming response from the heavens above; first the bottom part spins, and only then does its upper part follow in kind.

On Chanukah, however, our prayer and repentance were not as sincere. A mere handful of Hasmoneans led the charge, while most of our nation failed to display the requisite inspiration from below to warrant abundant blessing from above. And yet God showered us with miracles regardless. He provided us, mercifully, with inspiration from above, although we were undeserving of His open involvement. The miracles arrived and we emerged the victors; we re-dedicated the grand Temple and lit a miraculously burning oil.

On Chanukah we spin dreidels upon which are inscribed the first letters of the words, "neis gadol ha'yah sham" -- a great miracle happened there. We rejoice with our dreidels, but we spin them specifically from their top part to constantly remind ourselves that Chanukah was a time when miracles came gratis, when God bestowed His infinite compassion upon His people and things began to spin down to us in the form of undeniable miracles.

Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair explains how the dreidel can have even deeper meanings, and Rivka Berman at mazornet has still more fun with gematria.

Prof. David Golinkin has a different spin. He thinks that
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.

In England and Ireland there is a game called totum or teetotum that is especially popular at Christmastime. In English, this game is first mentioned as "totum" ca. 1500-1520. The name comes from the Latin "totum," which means "all." By 1720, the game was called T- totum or teetotum, and by 1801 the four letters already represented four words in English: T = Take all; H = Half; P = Put down; and N = Nothing.

Our Eastern European game of dreidel (including the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin) is directly based on the German equivalent of the totum game: N = Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in. In German, the spinning top was called a "torrel" or "trundl," and in Yiddish it was called a "dreidel," a "fargl," a "varfl" [= something thrown], "shtel ein" [= put in], and "gor, gorin" [= all].


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.

Well I certainly agree with the professor that Chanukah is often ironically subverted to include non-Jewish customs and foreign ideas.

A little further web searching led me to this Judaism FAQ page
.. you can look up its history in the Oxford English Dictionary. It turns out to be an ancient gambling toy, known in ancient Greece.
So, the legends of Jewish children playing with a spinning top to fool the soldiers is not impossible, though that article continues:
Although the fact that the Dreidel goes back to Greek times makes it possible that it was known in the Hashemonean kingdom, the fact that the Hebrew letters on the sides make a mnemonic that fits the pattern described above when used as initial letters of Yiddish words suggests that the dreidel entered Jewish culture through the Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi and is not of ancient origin.
Yes, well, Sefardi and Ashkenazi customs are often divergent - even those of "ancient origin".

Anyway, I'm going round and round with this. It's possible that the truth is somewhere in between. So far, none of the sifrei minhag I have looked at have cited this as a custom (aside from the relatively recent Sefer HaToda'ah by R' Eliyahu Kitov, who doesn't list a source), but I'm still looking .. I will provide updates here with anything new I find out.

Check out this collection of dreidel pictures!

Posted by joem on Dec 05, 2007 8:30 pm

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