Hanukkah celebrates overcoming European assimilation with Jewish culture, but one of its most popular symbols, the dreidel, may have roots in Europe.
Dreidel is a Yiddish word meaning “spinning top.” It is topped with a point and is embossed with a Hebrew letter on each of the four sides. It is said by some rabbi’s that the letters are acronyms for the phrase Nes gadol hayah sham, meaning in English “a great miracle happened there.” It only says that, however, outside of Israel. In Israel, the dreidel says Nes gadol hayah poh for “a great miracle happened here.” There is a lot of speculation about where the dreidel came from.
The Theories of the Dreidel
The dreidel has become a widely known Jewish custom, and the surprising fact is: it did not originate in Jewish culture! Rabbis have struggled to find a connection between the dreidel, or sevivon, and Hanukkah. In the 19th century, a rabbi maintained a touching story about the dreidel. He said that in the times when the Greek-Syrian rule over the Holy Land, learning the Torah was outlawed and punishable by death. The children had to study in caves, and would pretend to be playing a game if the Greeks approached them.
However, that is only one theory. One man used an elaborate gematriot, which is a numerical equivalent to letters, and word play to find his own theory. He found that nun, gimmel, hey, and shin had the same numerical equivalent, 358, as mashiach, or Messiah. Others believe the letters are meant to represent the four kingdoms that they battled in ancient times. Nebuchadnetza, or Babylon for the N. H stood for Haman or Persia. G for Gog, or Greece, and S for Seir, as in Rome.
The Irony of the Dreidel
The truth is that the game was played in Europe long before it became associated with Hanukkah. In England and Ireland, a similar game of totum is popular around Christmas. It was first mentioned in the 1500s, and by the 1700s, it was called T-totum. By the 1800s, the letters represented four English words: T for take all, H for half, P for put down and N for nothing. It’s based on a German game of the same sort. The game, perhaps one of the greatest examples of cultural assimilation, is played every year to celebrate Hannakuh, a celebration over the defeat of assimilation.
How to play the Dreidel Game
- Invite anyone you want to play the game!
- Everyone begins with 10-15 game pieces. These can be whatever you want, but for children playing the game, chocolate coins are most popular!
- When the game starts, everyone puts one game piece into the pot. Every time the pot is empty or down to the last piece, everyone puts in a game piece.
- When it’s your turn, spin the dreidel one time. With the result, you will give or get a game piece.
- Nun means ‘nothing’, so you don’t do anything at all.
- Gimmel means ‘everything’ so you take everything.
- Hey means ‘half’, so you only get half the pot.
- Shin outside Israel for ‘put in’ and peh in Israel for ‘pay’. Add a piece.
- When you run out of pieces, you lose unless someone will loan some to you.
- The winner wins all the game pieces.
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