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Vayeshev 5783: Dreidel Time - It’s How We Roll!

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! Hanukah begins this upcoming Sunday night, November 28th. To properly cover this important holiday, I am dedicating two columns to Hanukah.

As many of you know, I run a system of schools in South Florida. Because of how this year’s Hebrew calendar falls, we started our pre-school Hanukah plays earlier than usual. One of the administrators overheard a parent giving his five-year-old daughter a 21st century explanation of the miracle of Hanukah; “Imagine an iPhone lasting eight days on one charge!”

Then there was the child who excitedly told her teacher, “Grandma and grandpa are coming for Hanukah and bringing lots of guilt!” The teacher replied, “I think you mean gelt” (gelt is Yiddish for money). Parent (with a sigh), “Undoubtedly both.”

Q & A: What is Hanukah and how do we celebrate it?

In 167 BCE, the Syrian-Greek emperor, Antiochus, set out to destroy Judaism and incorporate the Land of Israel and its inhabitants into his empire. His soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.

However, the evil Antiochus knew that a mere physical attack on the Jews would not accomplish his goal. Instead, he decided to focus on destroying the structure of Judaism. A few weeks ago we discussed that the secret to the survival and longevity of the Jewish people lay in the highly structured personal and communal lifestyle dictated by the Torah. Antiochus was no fool – he knew that the only way to destroy Judaism was to disassemble that structure.

First, he prohibited studying and teaching the Torah. Next, he issued a ban prohibiting the practice of three mitzvot: 1) Sabbath observance 2) sanctifying of the new month (establishing the first day of the month by testimony of witnesses who saw the new moon) 3) brit mila (entering the Covenant of Abraham through Torah-ordained circumcision).

Why these three mitzvot? Sabbath observance signifies that God is the creator and sustainer of the universe and that His Torah is the blueprint of creation – imbuing the world with meaning and values.

Sanctifying the new moon determines the monthly calendar and the exact day of the Jewish holidays. Without a functioning calendar there would be communal chaos.

Brit mila (circumcision) is a sign of our eternal covenant with the Almighty and articulates our inclusion into the covenant that God established with our forefather Abraham when He gave him the mitzvah of circumcision and established him as the first Jew.

Thus, these three mitzvot form a foundation for the structure of Judaism. Antiochus knew that without them our cultural integrity would quickly deteriorate and dissolve, and we would slowly submit to the Greek culture.

A family of Jewish priests – Matityahu and his 5 sons, known as the Maccabees – would not have it. They started a revolt and three years later succeeded in evicting the oppressors. The victory was a true miracle – on the scale of present day Israel being able to defeat the combined forces of all of today’s super-powers (this might also explain why the emblem of the State of Israel is a menorah).

Once the Jewish people regained control of the Temple in Jerusalem, they wanted to rededicate it immediately.

In order to do so, they needed ritually pure olive oil to re-light the menorah in the Temple, which was a part of the Temple’s nightly service. However, only a single cruse of oil was found, just enough to burn for one day though they needed oil for eight days – the time it would take for new ritually pure olive oil to be produced. A miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days. Thus, the Temple was rededicated; in fact, Hanukah means “to dedicate” in Hebrew!

To commemorate the miracle, we light Hanukah candles (or better yet, lamps with olive oil) for eight days. One light the first day, two the second, and so forth. The first candle is placed to the far right of the menorah with each additional night’s candle being placed to the immediate left. One says three blessings the first night (only two blessings each subsequent night) and then lights the candles, starting with the furthermost candle to the left, the newest candle. All of the menorah’s candles should be the same height (except the shamash, which is used to light the other candles) and placed in a straight line. Ashkenazi tradition has each person in the household lighting his/her own menorah. Sefardi tradition is that just one menorah needs to be lit per family.

The blessings can be found on the back of the Hanukah candle box or in a siddur, prayer book. The candles may be lit inside the home. It is preferable to light by a window where passersby in the street can see them in order to publicize the miracle of Hanukah. In Israel, people light outside their homes in special glass boxes built for a menorah or little glasses with olive oil and wicks.

The tradition to eat latkes – fried potato pancakes – is to commemorate the miracle of the oil. In Israel, the tradition is to eat sufganiot, deep-fried jelly donuts. Another tradition is to play a game chance with a dreidel, a four-sided top with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hey, and shin. The first letters represent the phrase “nes gadol haya sham – a great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the last letter is a pay for the word “poh – here.”

In times of persecution, when learning Torah was forbidden, Jews would study anyway (we are, after all, “the people of the book”). When the soldiers would investigate why there was a gathering of people, the assembled would pull out the dreidel and pretend that they were gambling.

Here are the rules for playing dreidel: each player gets a turn to spin and whichever side they land on determines their move as follows, nun – spinner does nothing; gimmel – spinner takes the pot; hey – spinner get half the pot; shin/pay – spinner adds two coins to the pot!

I’ll leave you with a question to think about: If enough oil was found to burn in the Temple menorah for one day and the oil lasted for eight days, then the miracle was really only for the seven additional days of lighting. Why then do we celebrate Hanukah for eight days and not seven?

Stay tuned! We will, God willing, elaborate on this concept next week when we delve even further into the mysteries surrounding Hanukah.

Torah Portion of the Week

Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1 - 40:23

This week's portion includes four stories: 1) The selling of Joseph (Yosef) as a slave by his brothers, which eventually positioned Joseph to be second in command in Egypt and enabled him to save the known world from famine 2) The indiscretion of Judah (Yehuda) with Tamar 3) The attempted seduction of Joseph by Potifar's wife, which ends with her framing Joseph and having him imprisoned 4) Joseph interpreting the dreams of his fellow prisoners, the wine steward (who was reinstated and forgot to put in a good word for Joseph) and the baker (who was hanged).

Candle Lighting Times

“A Chanuka miracle would be a universally accepted way of spelling Hanukkah.”

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Edward Grodsky

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