Chanukah Series: The Dreidel

The dreidel is one of the best known symbols of Chanukah. A four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side, the dreidel is used to play a fun Chanukah game of chance. The word dreidel comes from a Yiddish word meaning “to turn.” Each side of the dreidel has one letter of the Hebrew alphabet:

                   Pictured from left to right:  נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin)

                   Pictured from left to right:  נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin)

Since the Greeks outlawed the study of the Torah, it was hidden whenever someone approached.  Instead, the dreidels were taken out and played like a game of chance. The letters on the dreidels form the acronym for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” which translates "a great miracle happened there". In Israel, the fourth side of most dreidels is inscribed with the letter פ (Pei), which changes the acronym to “ Nes Gadol Hayah Poh” which translates “a great miracle happened here," referring to the miracle that occurred in the land of Israel, the Holy Land. The situation there seemed dire and beyond hope. The commitment of a few people turned the situation around (like a Dreidel turns around) and brought out the miracle and God's salvation.

Spinning the dreidel is not part of the official Chanukah ceremonies, but has become a traditional game played during the holiday. It has become one of the symbols associated with Chanukah.

To play the game of dreidel, two to four players each get a handful of pennies or chocolate money called gelt. The dreidel continues to be passed around the circle until one player has won everyone's coins.

Rules of the game To play the game of Dreidel, two to four players each get an equal number of game pieces (usually 10–15). The game pieces can be any object, such as chocolate money called gelt, pennies, or raisins. The remainder of the pot is left in the middle. The youngest player spins the dreidel to begin the game. It can be played in several rounds.

At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the center "pot." In addition, every time the pot is empty and sometimes if it has one game piece left, every player puts one in the pot.

Each player spins the dreidel once during their turn. Depending on which side is facing up when it stops spinning, they give or take game pieces from the pot:

  • NUN - Loses his turn and the top passes to the next player
  • GIMEL - Wins everything in the pot
  • HEY - Win half the pot. (If there is an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player rounds up to the nearest  whole number)
  • SHIN (or PEH) - Lose all of his coins or some play that he only adds a game piece to the pot.

If the player is out of pieces, they are either "out of the game" or may ask another player for a "loan."

The winner is the one who ends up with all the pieces.

Dreidle.jpg

A famous song is sung about this game. “I Have a Little Dreidel” (also known as the Dreidel song) is a very famous song in the English speaking world for Chanukah. The English version of the song is well associated with the festival of Chanukah, and is known by many Jews and non-Jews alike. The lyrics of the song are simple and about making a dreidel and playing with it. The lyrics are as follows:

I Have a Little Dreidel I have a little dreidel I made it out of clay, And when it's dry and ready O dreidel I shall play. O dreidel dreidel dreidel I made it out of clay, And when it's dry and ready, O dreidel I shall play.

According to some historians, Jews first played with a spinning top during the rule of the Greek King Antiochus'. In Judea, Antiochus had outlawed Jewish worship, so the Jews would use a game with the spinning top as a ruse to conceal that they were secretly studying Torah.

Please comment if you have enjoyed this Chanukah Series! Happy Chanukah!