Please settle this argument between myself and my spouse. I say dreidels are a Jewish version of a typical child’s toy that we plunked Hebrew letters on, she claims that the dreidel is a uniquely Jewish toy. Which is it?
Before settling this marital difference of opinion, we must first do a review of dreidel-osity. The dreidel, or sivivon, is the toy we use to amuse ourselves over the holiday of Hanukkah. The word dreidel is from the Yiddish: to drei means to turn. Sometimes the Hebrew word sivivon is used, which means “round and round.”
It is a spinning top with four sides. On each side a Hebrew letter appears: nun, gimmel, hay, shin — standing for the words nes gadol haya sham, meaning a great miracle happened there, referring to the Hanukkah miracle.
The dreidel game is essentially a gambling game, with each player initially contributing to the pot and then experiencing wins or losses according to the twists and turns of the dreidel. Play begins when the dreidel is spun. Depending on the letter upon which it lands the player must contribute to the pot, or alternatively, may be awarded an amount from the pot; perhaps half or, if you are lucky, the whole pot! A miracle!
Traditionally, if you land on the nun, you neither put in nor take out, but if you land on the gimmel you are awarded with the entire pot. Landing on hay gets you half the pot and if your dreidel ends its dizzying twirling on the dreaded shin, you must submit and put in the predetermined amount. .
Now to your question: to quote the larger-than-life Jewish philosopher, Tevye, “you are right and your spouse is also right.” You are right in that, though we attribute the first playing of the dreidel back to the time of the Greek-Syrians and the Hanukkah story, we also know that in Europe there was a gambling game with a spinning top that had been played for centuries by various people. In fact, the game of totum or teetotum is a gambling game with a spinning top first mentioned in approximately 1500.
The connection to the Hanukkah story has this spin to it: when we were prohibited from studying Torah, we needed a way to hide our Torah learning. Using the dreidel as a decoy, we Jews would hide our books, take out the dreidels, and trick the Syrians into thinking that we were just playing a game.
Either way, I believe that in this unassuming whimsical dreidel there lies, or shall I say spins, a number of significant Jewish ideas and even critical Hanukkah lessons. Therefore, though the dreidel may very well be a universal kind of top, it is without a doubt imbued with a specifically Jewish message and meaning.
Nothing of Jewish practice is arbitrary. There is a big word on that dreidel — and I do not mean gadol. I mean nes, miracle. The notion of miracle and the approaches to the idea of miracles is a critical one in Jewish thought. To be sure, it is concept fraught with controversy, especially in the context of the Hanukkah story.
Consider these Hanukkah texts: first, the prayer we add to our daily service and to the grace after meals throughout the holiday called “Al Hanisim,” for the miracles. In the prayer we find a description of the events of the days of the Hasmoneans and of the battle that was fought to protect our right to worship freely and unencumbered by Greek influence.
God delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few. The spectacularly sensational victory permitted the purification of the Temple and the rededication of its vessels. A miracle, but, look closer, something is missing here. The oil! Where in this prayer of wonders is mention of the miracle of the oil?
To locate the oil we must search in the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, where we find first mention of the famed cruse. The text asks the question, what is the reason for Hanukkah?
The passage explains that when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and then defeated the enemy, they entered the Temple to rededicate its environs, they made search and found but one lone cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest. It contained a sufficient reserve for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought and they lit the lamp and it burned for eight days, allowing for time to produce more of the needed olive oil.
A bit of confusion from our sources — which miracle are we celebrating, is it the astounding triumph on the battlefield or the supernatural metaphysical miracle of oil that lasted for eight days?
I know the skeptical answer couched in historical realism and rationality, the “No, Virginia, there was no long-lasting oil” — response that many give. It does not work for me.
I think of the oil’s lasting for eight days as a sort of Divine wake-up call:
“Maccabees and all the rest of you, did you not notice what happened out there on the battlefield? Yes you are good soldiers, but without Me, without the intervention of the Holy One, there would have been no victory, there would be no rededication of the Temple, and you would not have been poised to embark on your great long history.”
It is never the might of the hand alone that brings the victory — it is the commitment to a higher good that ultimately affects triumph.
All of this is spinning before us in that dreidel. You pick up the dreidel, the seemingly quintessence of randomness, you spin it and as chance determines the fate of your pot the dreidel in turn teaches you the lesson of Hanukkah — a great miracle happened there.
No haphazardness in that Hanukkah story, no arbitrary twist of history, but rather a wondrous miracle reminding us that nothing about the fate of our people is by chance. David Ben Gurion, first prime minister of Israel put it this way:
“In Israel, in order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles.”