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That Pesky Dreidel

Nase Gadol Hayah Sham (Poh), A Great Miracle Happened There (Here)

A spinner, a top, a toy, whatever you want to call it, the dreidel, or sivivon as it is referred to in Hebrew is synonymous with the holiday of Hanukkah. But why? How did this little knickknack get associated with the story of Hanukkah?

The traditional, folk story told about the dreidel is that it was used to distract the Assyrian-Greek authorities. Antiochus IV decreed that, among other things, it was forbidden to study Torah. The Jews defied the edict and got together to study anyway. They would keep the dreidls with them and take them out to play with them when the Greeks happened to walk by. This is a great story, but most likely not the origin of the dreidel and its connection to Hanukkah. More likely it was used by children and families in Eastern Europe to occupy themselves as they sat and watch the Hanukkah candles burn.

Rabbi David Golinkin shares a little bit about the history of the sivivon in Noam Tzion’s “A Different Night: The Hanukkah Book of Celebration:”

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 teototum, which is especially popular at Christmas time. Our Eastern European game of dreidel is directly based on the German equivalent of the game. In German, the spinning top was called a torrel or trundle, and in Yiddish it was called a “dreidel.”

Interesting how a holiday in which we are highlighting the battle against cultural assimilation is celebrated using a game we culturally appropriated.

Wishing everyone a Happy Hanukkah.

Rabbi Bradley Tecktiel has been Midbar Kodesh Temple's spiritual leader since August 2008. Rabbi Tecktiel was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in May of 1996. He holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees, one from List College and one from Columbia University. He also holds a Masters of Arts from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

You can follow him on Twitter @RabbiMKT.

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