Hanukkah : Game of Dreidel a part of the Tradition

 In Judaism

The playing of the ‘Dreidel’ game isperhaps the most famous custom associated with Hanukkah. Legend has it that when the ancient Greeks outlawed the study of Torah, Jews used spinning tops popular gambling devices to outsmart them. A dreidel is a pointed, four-sided top normally made of wood or plastic, which can be made to spin on its pointed base.

Although Hanukkah has a universal secular message of religious freedom, the menorah is an inherently religious symbol with religious significance. The dreidel is a commonly recognized symbol of the holiday. It even has a song associated with its use: “Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.”

Why do Jews play dreidel?

There are a number of traditional explanations for why Jews play dreidel on Hanukkah. The custom is often explained with a legend that, during the time of the Maccabees, when Jewish children were forbidden from studying Torah, they would defy the decree and study anyway. When a Greek official would come close they would put away their books and take out spinning tops, claiming they were just playing games.

Most scholars seem to agree that the dreidel is derived from the English version of the top, called a teetotum.  Legend has it that when the ancient Greeks outlawed the study of Torah, Jews would outsmart them by playing with a spinning top  a popular gambling device while learning Torah orally.

Indeed, various rabbis have tried to find an integral connection between the dreidel and the Hanukkah story; the standard explanation is that the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin, which appear on the dreidel in the Diaspora, stand for nes gadol haya sham–“a great miracle happened there,”while in Israel the dreidel says nun, gimmel, hey, pey, which means “a great miracle happened here.”


One 19th-century rabbi maintained that Jews played with the dreidel in order to fool the Greeks if they were caught studying Torah, which had been outlawed. Others figured out elaborate gematriot [numerological explanations based on the fact that every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent] and word plays for the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin. For example, nun, gimmel, hey, shin in equals 358, which is also the numerical equivalent of mashiach or Messiah!

Finally, the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin are supposed to represent the four kingdoms that tried to destroy us [in ancient times]: N = Nebuchadnetzar = Babylon; H = Haman = Persia = Madai; G = Gog = Greece; and S = Seir = Rome.

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.

Dreidel game

Break out your dreidels and get ready for some traditional Hanukkah fun. Notice the Hebrew letters on each side of the dreidel, which represent the words, “A great miracle happened there,” referring to the miracle of the oil. Start the dreidel game with the proper supplies, which include 10 or 15 coins (real or of chocolate) for each player. Place one coin in the center pot.

Have the first player spin the dreidel. Each player spins the dreidel once during their turn. Depending on which side is facing up when it stops spinning, the player whose turn it is gives or takes game pieces from the pot: If נ (nun) is facing up, the player does nothing. If ג (gimel) is facing up, the player gets everything in the pot.

Instruct the player to either take a coin from the pot or give up a portion of his or her coins, based on the following code:

    Nun– “nothing”– nothing happens

    Gimel– “all”– take everything in the pot

    Hey– “half”– take half of the pot (round up if necessary)

    Shin– “put in” – put one coin in the pot

Continue to play until one person has all of the coins.

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 worshiping idols, but the irony remains nonetheless.


Must read Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights

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