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.
A 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.)
Rebecca 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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