What You Don’t Know About Dreidels

Rabbi Elihu Saffron

Jewish Studies and Stories

Reprinted by Permission

Perhaps you’ve joined in a game of dreidel – you spin the top, and depending where it lands, collect your riches (usually in the form of chocolate candy, called gelt). But like so many holiday traditions, the modern form of the game has strayed far from its origins. The letters on the four sides of a dreidel — nun, gimel, hey, and shin — form an acronym for the Hebrew phrase, “A great miracle happened there.” The miracle refers to the ancient story of the candles in a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. After driving out the soldiers of the Seleucid Empire, which had outlawed Judaism, the Maccabean Jews found that they had enough oil to light the menorah for only one day. However, it’s said that the menorah lights burned for a full eight days, giving the Jews time to produce more oil. This is the story of Hanukkah.

The dreidel is said to date back to that same time, as a cover for Jewish children trying to study. By playing dreidel during Chanukah we are reminded of the courage of those brave children. The students who studied Torah illegally, put their lives at risk. While they were doing so, a lookout was assigned to watch for soldiers. If the soldiers saw a Jewish gathering, they would check to ensure that there were not religious studies going on. When the lookout gave the signal that soldiers were coming, the students quickly put away their texts and took out their dreidels.

The Seleucid soldiers saw young men in a gambling game, spinning their tops and winning or losing objects. The soldiers were content to see Jewish boys gambling instead of studying the tenets of their faith. Thus, the dreidels helped keep the study of Torah alive until the Maccabees were able to overthrow the usurpers and Judaism could be practiced in the open.

Thus, our tiny dreidels have a heroic history. Without them, there really could not have been any Hanukkah.