> Holidays > Chanukah > Basics

Hanukkah Dreidel Secrets

May 9, 2009 | by Shimon Apisdorf

What the Hanukkah dreidel was 'back then' and how we can learn from it today.

In Judaism, even something as simple as “spin-the-top is really not as simple as it appears.

During the time of the Maccabees, Jews were imprisoned for the "crime" of studying Torah. While in jail, these Jews would gather together to play dreidel. Under the guise of idling away their time, they’d engage in Torah discussions and thus defy the enemies of Judaism.

Every dreidel has four sides with one Hebrew letter on each side. Each of these letters begins a word.  The four letters are:

• Nun – the first letter of the word nes, which means "miracle"
• Gimmel – the first letter of gadol, which means "great"
• Hey – the first letter of haya, which means "was" and
• Shin – the first letter of sham, which means "there"

When taken together, these letters proclaim "A great miracle happened there."

Until today, the “game of dreidel” reminds us of our eternal defiance of anyone who tries to stand between a Jew and the Torah.

Spinning Through History

Someone once said: Life is like a top. You spin around a lot, and then you fall over.”

To some, life is a game, a joke, an arbitrary abyss. Not to the Jewish people. We’ve been "spinning" through history for 3,000 years. To some, history may seem like an arbitrary string of events whose frequent tragedies seem to proclaim life's futility. But the message of the dreidel is just the opposite.

In mystical Kabbalah teachings, there is another dimension to the dreidel. The four letters represent four different historical empires – Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman – that tried to destroy the Jewish people. (Today we are victims of the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple and sent us into the current exile.)

Are we just spinning haphazardly from one tragedy to another, or is there some rhyme and reason to all that has happened in our history?

It is at times of tragedy that the dreidel presents its message: If we believe there is ultimate meaning to the Jewish people, if we know that despite the dizzying blur of events in our history there is some purpose to it all, and if we are prepared to fight to remain Jews regardless of what history throws at us, then who knows – we might just see a miracle and be reassured that there is a hidden hand guiding the destiny of the Jewish people.

Modern Miracle

In 1947, for the first time since the Maccabees defeated the Greeks, the Jewish people were on the verge of reclaiming sovereignty in their homeland. Around the world, many were skeptical if the birth of this new state would happen at all. Others were convinced that if it was born, it would soon go down in defeat to the vastly larger and far better equipped Arab armies.

For political reasons the Jews of Palestine had built up an image of strength. So persuasive was their propaganda, even the Arabs had been fooled. But reality was pathetically different:

The fledgling Jewish army had weapons for less than a quarter of its men. Its total arsenal consisted of a few thousand rifles, less than a thousand machine guns, and sufficient ammunition for only three days fighting. The Jews had no heavy armaments of any kind – no heavy machine guns, no artillery, no anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns, no real armored cars. And nothing whatsoever in the way of an Air Force or Navy. Nothing.

Then, on December 5, 1947, things got worse. The United States government announced a total embargo on arms sales to the Middle East. By that time, the Arabs had already purchased tens of millions of dollars worth of U.S. arms surplus. And the Jews were left with their paltry supplies.

But you know the rest of the story.

“In Israel, in order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles.”
– David Ben Gurion, First Prime Minister of Israel

How to Play the Dreidel Game

On Chanukah, everyone loves spinning the dreidel. We have contests to see who can spin it the longest. Or who can get the most dreidels spinning simultaneously.

And of course, there's the famous dreidel game played for Chanukah "gelt:"

• Nun – no one wins
• Gimmel – spinner takes the pot
• Hey – spinner get half the pot
• Shin – spinner matches the pot


Adapted from "Chanukah – Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul"

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