This evening, we lit the eighth and final Chanucah candle. With this last candle, I want to tell you about one more custom associated with Chanucah – the dreidel, as it is popularly known in Yiddish among Ashkenazi Jews, or (in Hebrew) – s’vivon (סביבון). In plain English, the spinning top. At Chanucah, it is customary for children (and not only children) to play a gambling game with a spinning top. The spinning top has four letters, one on each of its four sides:
The letters (nun, gimmel, hey, shin) stand for the Hebrew words “Ness gadol haya sham” (נס גדול היה שם) – A great miracle happened there. In Israel, instead of the letter shin (ש), standing for the word “sham“, meaning “there“, we substitute the letter pey (פ), standing for the word “poh“, meaning “here” – A great miracle happened here.
The way the game is played is thus: every player (and there is no limit to the number of participants) starts off with an equal number of counters, chocolate coins, nuts, matchsticks or whatever else is being used instead of real money (when I was I child, I remember playing for peanuts or walnuts). Each player puts one piece in the “pot” at the start of each round or each time the pot is empty or only one piece is left. Then everyone takes turns in spinning the dreidel. Depending on which letter comes up tops, you either win or lose. If the letter nun comes up (nisht or “nothing” in Yiddish), the player does nothing. If the letter gimmel comes up (gantz or “everything” in Yiddish), the player takes the whole pot. The letter hey (halb or “half” in Yiddish), gives the player half of the pot while the participant who is unlucky enough to come up with shin (shtel or “put in” in Yiddish) has to put one more token in the pot. If you’re in Israel, instead of shin, you’ll have pey – or maybe I should have spelled it pay, because you have to do just that. 😉
The big question is, how on earth did this game come to be associated with Chanucah, when, in general, Judaism frowns upon gambling, seeing it as a form of theft. The most common answer seems to be, that in the days of the Maccabees, the Greek-Syrian monarch, Antiochus, forbade the study of the Torah upon pain of death. So when groups of students gathered together for the purpose of Torah study, they would always have spinning tops or other gambling equipment with them and if the Greek soldiers or government inspectors turned up and got suspicious about why they had gathered together and were not working, they would claim that were just getting together to gamble.
Whatever its origins, the dreidel game is now so closely associated with Chanucah that it’s hard to imagine the festival without it.
I will leave you with one more musical offering for Chanucah, in English this time, from the inimitable Maccabeats of Yeshiva University: