When it comes to Chanukah, we are all familiar with the custom of lighting candles. We
know the story of the battle between the Macabees and the Assyrian Greeks. We have read the tale of the cruse of oil, enough for one night’s lighting, that lasted for eight nights.
We are also aware that there is a special toy and game we use on this holiday called
“dreidl” in Yiddish and “S’vivon” in Hebrew. But what are the origins of the game and why do
we play with the cute little spinning top on Chanukah?
The standard explanation of the connection between the dreidl and Chanukah relates to the four letters that make up each side of the dreidl. Nun, Gimel, Heh, Shin, which stand for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, or a “a great miracle happened THERE.” In Israel, the driedls have Nun, Gimel, Heh, Peh which stand for Nes Gadol Hayah po which means, “a great miracle happened HERE.”
According to Rabbi David Golinkin, one 19th century rabbi maintained that Jews played
with the dreidls in order to fool the Greeks if they were caught studying Torah. Other rabbis
figured out elaborate gematriot (interpretations using the numerology of Hebrew letters) based on the value of the four Hebrew letters on the dreidl. One example is that the letters Nun, Gimel, Heh, Shin, equal 358 which is also the numerical equivalent of the word Mashiach or “messiah.” Still others interpreted the letters to stand for the kingdoms that arose to try and destroy the Jews –Nun, Nebuchadnezzar (Babylonia), Heh, Haman (Persia/Media), gimel, Gog (Greece), and Shin, Sier (Rome).
Rabbi Golinkin goes on to explain that in fact all of these explanations were invented
after the fact. Originally, the dreidl game had nothing to do with Chanukah. It was a game played by different people in different lands. To quote Golinkin:
“In England and Ireland there is a game called totum or teetum which is especially
popular at Christmas time. In English, the game is first mentioned as totum, circa 1500-1520 CE. 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=take half; P=put down; N=nothing. Our Eastern European game of dreidl (including the letters Nun, Gimel. Heh, Shin) is directly based on the German equivalent of the 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 “dreidl.”(A Different Night, edited by Noam Zion pp. 177-178).
As you and your children and grandchildren play with your favorite dreidls this year, consider both the traditional interpretations of the dreidl as well as Judaism’s ability to adapt games and symbols from other cultures.
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.