New York Children Celebrate Start Of HanukkahSecond-grade students from a public school in New York play with dreidels and gelt after lighting the menorah at the Eldridge St. Synagogue. (photo: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

Each December, parents at my children’s public school are asked to contribute candy or small toys that will be used to fill the children’s Christmas stockings. During our first year at the school, though somewhat taken aback at the blatant bias towards one holiday, I decided that this might be a great opportunity to expose the other students to a little cultural diversity and chose to send in dreidels as our family’s contribution.

Wanting my son’s classmates to understand the rules of the game, I enclosed a set of instructions with each spinning top. But in order for the game to be played, game pieces would be required as well. And that is when things got complicated.

See, the dreidel game is traditionally played with delicious foil-enclosed chocolate coins known as gelt. As I was driving to my local Judaica shop, I had a sobering thought: ‘What would the non-Jews think?’ After hundreds of years of the misperception of the Jew as a money-loving, cheap banker, would I be perpetuating this stereotype with the innocent act of including a mesh bag of gelt in the Christmas stockings of my son’s classmates?

Let’s take a look at the history of the dreidel. The party-line that most of us learned in Sunday school is that the origins of the dreidel date as far back as the Chanukah story itself. Antiochus IV, the self-proclaimed divine ruler of the Greek-Syrians, prohibited the Jews from studying Torah. According to legend, the Jews needed a way to hide their Torah learning and so they used the dreidel as a decoy. When they saw the Greek-Syrians coming, the Jews would hide their books, take out their dreidels, and trick the Syrians into thinking they were just playing a game.

While a perfect way to link the holiday’s history to its modern celebration, this is probably not the actual genesis of the tradition. Like so many of our rituals, the dreidel game is more likely a reappropriation of a non-Jewish (or non-Israelite) practice.

Teetotum BruegelA gambling game with a spinning top has been played for centuries by various people in various languages. In England and Ireland, the game of totum or teetotum, first mentioned in approximately 1500 CE, was especially popular at Christmastime. The Germans also liked to play a gambling game with a spinning top.

It is believed that the Jewish game of dreidel is a Judaicized version of the German gambling game. The Yiddish word dreidel derived from the German word drehen, which means “to spin.” The Hebrew word for dreidel is s’vivon. S’vivon comes from the word sovev, which means “to turn.”

The letters on the faces of the gambling toy, which were mnemonic for the rules of the game, varied in each nation. The letters on the English spinning top were: T for Take, H for Half, P for Put, N for None. In the German game, the letters were: N for Nichts (nothing), G for Ganz (all), H for Halb (half), S for Stell (put). The German words would have been the same in Yiddish and so the Hebrew letters on the dreidel correspond to the Yiddish: Nun for Nichts (nothing), Gimel for Ganz (all), Hay for Halb (half), Shin for Stell (put).

In an effort to link the game to the celebration of Chanukah, the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay, and shin were said to stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham, which means “a great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the letter shin on the dreidel is replaced with the letter pay. Thus, the letters nun, gimel, hay, and pay would stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Po, which means “a great miracle happened here.”

In other words, this game is about money! Or, at the very least, it is about gambling. And we didn’t even invent it.

End result? I opted not to include the chocolate. Figured the parents might be worried about the amount of junk food that their kids would be eating that week.

(Inset image: A clipping from Pieter Breugel’s 1560 painting titled “Children’s Games” shows a girl holding a teetotum.)

Rabbi Rebecca SchorrRebecca Schorr is associate rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, California. A lifelong diarist, her numerous essays have appeared in local and national publications. She opines regularly at her blog, Frume Sarah’s World.

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With all due respect to Rabbi Schorr, there have always been gambling games. I am sure there was some version of a top, or dice or knucklebones prevalent among the Greco-Roman soldiers that the Jews could have used as subterfuge in order to fulfill the commandment to study Torah. And that is the point of using this as part of the Chanukah story. The Jews elevated a game for money to a mitzvah, but NOT for the money, for the mitzvah.

Of course, you could always use chestnuts. No one actually eats those, so no money and no junk food.

Wow, I learned so much in this post. Thank you!

Just to add, playing the game as a child takes on another meaning as well, which I wish could be conveyed to your son's class about Jewish families: those little bags of chocolate 'gelt' remind many of us of our grandparents!

How convenient for you to just sweep tradition under the rug, to get on with your own thesis. "When they saw the Greek-Syrians coming, the Jews would hide their books, take out their dreidels, and trick the Syrians into thinking they were just playing a game." Why not believe it!? The Romans cruelly subdued the Jews. They wanted to break the spiritual connection Jews felt to God. As long as Jews would behave in a reformed way they were left alone. Only when they insisted on learning the Torah - the holy Torah as THEY saw it, was it hazardous to their life. So the kids "played" to fend off the murderers. No they probably did not have to hide their "books". There were no printing presses in those days. Probably one of them held a parchment and the others looked on - as Jews do until today in Yemen.

It's nice to make up stories, but since religion is the search for spiritual truth, shouldn't we try to start with earnest facts instead of legendary meanings? Hannukah doesn't really even count as a festival in the Jewish liturgical calendar. Sorry if I sound like a bleeding heart, but the whole "no studying/yes gambling" supposition sounds dumb and vilifies the Greco-Syrians and Romans. Were they persecuting the Jews? Do they deserve some vilification? Probably, but the story just doesn't ring true. The occupying goyim didn't want Jews doing ANYTHING much. Suggesting it was okay in their eyes for Jews to gamble and play but not to study makes it sound like learning had no place in the Greco-Syrian or Roman cultures, while sloth and avarice were highly accepted.

This is
cool! And so interested! Are u have more posts like this? Please tell me,