What is a Dreidel and why?
The dreidel or sevivon is perhaps the most famous custom associated with Hanukkah. The dreidel is a type of top with a Hebrew letter on each of its four sides. The four letters are nun (נ), gimel (ג), hei (ה), and shin (ש), which are commonly understood to be an acronym for the phrase נֵס גָדוֹל הָיָה שָׁם, “A great miracle occurred there.” “There” being the land of Israel. In Israel, the letter peh (for the Hebrew word “po,” meaning “here”) replaces the letter shin to spell out “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”
To play dreidel, each player begins with an equal number of games pieces usually ten to fifteen, such as coins, candies, etc. At the beginning of each round, every player puts one game piece into the center pot. Players then take turns spinning the dreidel. Depending on the side it lands on, you give or get game pieces from the pot:
- Nun means “nisht” or “nothing.” The player does nothing.
- Gimel means “gantz” or “everything.” The player gets everything in the pot.
- Hey means “halb” or “half.” The player gets half of the pot. (If there is an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player takes half of the total plus one).
- Shin (outside of Israel) means “shtel” or “put in.” Peh (in Israel) also means “put in.” The player adds a game piece to the pot.
If you find that you have no game pieces left, you are either “out” or may ask a fellow player for a “loan.” When one person has won everything, that round of the game is over!
The classical reason given for playing the game of dreidel on Chanukah is that the simple little top was used during the Chanukah era to preserve Judaism. When the Syrian-Greeks ruled over the Holy Land, they outlawed many Jewish practices, such as circumcision, Shabbat observance and Torahlearning. With great self-sacrifice, the Jewish children would hide in caves to learn Torah. When they would see a Greek patrol approaching, they would quickly hide their scrolls and take out spinning tops, pretending to have simply been playing a game. Despite the ubiquity of this reason, many mystics have ascribed much deeper symbolism to the game of dreidel. In fact, many of them don’t even mention the classic reason for dreidel.
Other explanations for the dreidel include 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. 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 gematria equals 358, which is also the numerical equivalent of mashiach or Messiah!
The game of dreidel teaches that even when we are playing, we imbue the game with meaning, remembering our heritage and the miraculous salvations that G‑d performed for Jews in the past. It also expresses our longing for the final redemption with the coming of the Moshiach.
Sources: “Essential Judaism,” Robinson, George. 2016. myjeweishlearning.com. chabad.org.