Significance of the Dreidel 

Dreidel is a derivative of a German word meaning “top”. In Hebrew the name for the dreidel is "sevivon" which actually means a spinning top. The game is an adaptation of an old gambling game. Hanukkah was one of the few times of the year when rabbis permitted games of chance. The dreidel, therefore, was a natural candidate for Hanukkah entertainment. Jewish families understand that the game played with the dreidel each year during Chanukah is much more meaningful than simply spinning a top for while there is a game played with the dreidel there are also specific meanings that go along with it.

The dreidel is played in the light of the Chanukah Menorah. It has four sides spinning around on a point. Since children receive Chanukah "gelt" (money) during Chanukah, and since the lighting of the candles causes children to be diverted from their studies, they are told: "while you relax, don't forget the miracles wrought for you…" And so the letters on the dreidel teach that even while at play, the remembrance of God's bounty should be in one's mind. The Hebrew letters Nun, Gimmel, Sin, and Heh are carved on the sides of the dreidel. For the purpose of the game they stand for:

  • nun (“nichts”) – take nothing; 
  • gimel (“ganz”) – take everything; 
  • hei (“halb”) – take half; 
  • shin (“shtell”) – put in.

Over time, the gambling terms were reinterpreted to stand for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “A great miracle happened there.” The commemoration of a miraculous victory of a faithful few Jews over the might of the Greek Empire. Thus, even an ordinary game of chance was invested with Jewish values and served to remind Jews of the important message of Hanukkah. Today, Jewish children throughout the world continue to enjoy the game of dreidel. In Israel, one letter on the dreidel has been changed. The shin has been replaced with a pei, transforming the Hebrew phrase into Nes Gadol Hayah Po. “A great miracle happened here.”

But on a deeper level, the dreidel is seen as a microcosmic representation of the four kingdoms, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome spinning around the center, the Jewish People. According to Jewish teachings, the little dreidel not only contains the story of the Jewish People, but also the history of the whole world! Accordingly this story of the dreidel begins not with the miracle of Chanukah, but 1,437 years earlier with Jacob's ladder and tells the story of four great kingdoms that in turn dominated and exiled the Jewish People: Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome.

From his dream it is said that Jacob saw the angel of Babylon ascend the ladder 70 steps and then come down: The Jewish People were in the Babylonian exile for 70 years. The protecting angel of the Empire of Persia and Media then climbed up the ladder 52 steps before descending: The Jewish People were in exile in Persia 52 years. Then the angel of the Empire of Greece climbed 180 rungs - the domination of Greece lasted 180 years. Finally, the protecting angel of the Roman Empire climbed up the ladder, but he didn't come down. From this Jacob feared that the final exile would never end, until God promised him - If he will rise up like an eagle and make his nest among the stars - even from there I will bring him down. And so the Jewish people see themselves as in the final exile until Messiah comes.

Rules for the Game
  • Two or more players.
  • Every player receives a given number of coins, nuts or similar items.
  • Before spinning the dreidel each player deposits a fixed proportion of the amount received into a "kupah" or kitty.
  • One of the players spins the dreidel.
  • When the dreidel falls, it will fall on one of the 4 letters. According to the letter, the following will happen:
  • Nun - no win / no lose
  • Gimmel - take all (from the kitty)
  • Heh - take half (from the kitty)
  • Peh or Shin - lose (what you deposited)
  • The next round takes place with new deposits by each player.
  • The next player in the circle spins the dreidel, and so the game proceeds.
  • The game continues until players have run out of 'funds' or it is agreed to stop. Anyone losing all funds is out of the game!