A favorite tradition of Chanukah is playing Dreidel. Now this is not something that we can associate with early Chanukah celebrations. Many scholars think that the dreidel developed from an Irish or English spinning top game that was introduced into Germany and then taken up by the Ashkenazi Jewish community. It was the Jewish community that placed Hebrew letters on the four sides and named it a “dreidel.” Dreidel comes from the Yiddish term that means “to turn.”
A legend appeared in the late 19th century that a game played with these spinning tops was used by faithful Jews at the time of the Maccabean revolt to hide their Torah study from the Seleucid Greek authorities. The story goes that they would gather to study Torah, but when one of the authorities approached, out the tops would come and the scholars would pretend that they were only playing a game. It is a great story — but it does not appear to be historically accurate because dreidels didn’t exist yet.
To play the traditional game of Dreidel, each person in the group has a pile of some items to be used as playing pieces. Traditionally, it is gelt — those foil wrapped chocolate coins, but you could use raisins, pennies, M&Ms, beans, jelly beans, or even LEGO pieces. To simplify the instructions, we’ll call the playing piece gelt.
To start, each player puts one piece of gelt in the middle of the table. This is called the “pot.” Starting with the youngest person and proceeding clockwise, the players each take a turn spinning the dreidel. After each spin, follow the instructions below.
The dreidel will have four “sides,” each with a Hebrew letter. When you spin it, it will eventually stop with one of the four letters on the side that’s facing upwards.
נ – Nun: Nothing happens and the dreidel passes to the next player.
ג – Gimel: The player who spun Gets everything in the pot, then everyone puts another piece of gelt in the pot (sort of like starting again). The dreidel passes to the next player.
ה – Hey: The player who spun gets Half of the pot; if there is an uneven number of gelt in the pot, the player takes the smaller portion and leaves the rest. The dreidel passes to the next player.
ש – Shin: The player who spun must SHare by adding another piece of gelt to the pot. The dreidel passes to the next player.
If a player runs out of playing pieces, either they are out of the game or the other players chip in to give them some more. Play continues until all players, but one, are out of gelt… or until everyone is tired and players start eating their gelt!
Those four Hebrews letters don’t make a word, but they do represent an important saying for Chanukah:
Nes Gadol Hayah Sham — A Great Miracle Happened There
What miracle? Well maybe the miracle of the oil, or maybe the miracle of the preservation of His people by our faithful G-d, or maybe both!
An interesting fact: in Israel the dreidels are different! In Israel, a פ “pey” replaces the “shin.” It stands for:
Nes Gadol Hayah Po — A Great Miracle Happened Here
Because if you are in Israel, that great miracle happened right where you are.