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Why Do We Play With a Top on Chanukah?

Why Do We Play With a Top on Chanukah?

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Question:

Why do we play with Dreidels on Chanukah?

Answer:

A favorite pasttime of children and adults alike on the Festival of Chanukah is playing with a Dreidel (in English - top, in Hebrew - sevivohn). This delightful game has an ancient history. The Dreidel has four letters from the Hebrew alphabet, imprinted on each of its sides. In Israel the letters are Nun, Gimel, Hay, and Pay, which stands for Nais Gadol Hayah Poh -- a great miracle happened here. Outside of Israel the letters are Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Shin, which stands for Nais Gadol Hayah Shahm -- a great miracle happened there.

The game is played by distributing to all participants either nuts, chocolates, or Chanukah Gelt (coins). Everyone places a coin in the middle and someone spins the Dreidel. If the Dreidel stops showing Nun, he neither wins nor loses. If Gimmel, he wins the entire pot. If Hay, he gets half the pot. If Shin, he must put one in the pot.

The game then continues with the next person taking his turn, and so on around the circle until someone has won everything. It is of course nice to distribute plenty of consolation prizes so that everyone can go home a winner!

Where did this wonderful game originate? Truth be told, it was a game of life or death. The Greek Syrians had become a progressively more oppressive occupying force. At first they felt they would convert the Jewish population to their pagan ways through being kind and gentle with the Jews. Much to their chagrin the Jews remained steadfastly committed to their own religion (aside from a small percentage who became Hellenized).

Frustrated by their lack of success the powerful regime passed a series of laws outlawing the study of Torah as a religious work. They additionally outlawed many types of ritual commandments like circumcision and Shabbat observance. The Jews were compelled to take their Torah learning "underground," for they knew, a Jew without Torah is like a fish out of water.

In order to disguise their activity the Children of Israel had to resort to learning Torah in outlying areas and forests. Even this plan was not foolproof, for the enemy had many patrols. The Jews therefore brought along small tops that they would quickly pull out and play with after secreting away their texts, so that they could pretend to be merely playing games.

This ruse did the trick, and the unbroken tradition of Torah scholarship thankfully remained intact!

Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort is director of Chabad at La Costa, California, and welcomes readers' comments and questions.
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Discussion (21)
December 19, 2013
Top
Sure, check out this link for a video demo.
Mrs. Chana Benjaminson
mychabad.org
December 15, 2013
jewish game with top and video
do you have video of the top and how to play
Anonymous
December 24, 2011
top question
thank you so much for the explanation.
Laveda Chamousis
Paradise, CA,USA
December 12, 2010
finding our way, to spin
As I have said, I loved this precious article, but I do not agree with Dhama, above. I just sat at a birthday and joyous celebration of a scientist at MIT, a colleague of my husband's and a man who celebrates every Passover, with us as family. At the table where I was seated was a Greek scientist and his lovely wife. There was no resentment. A word not in his vocabulary. We had a wonderful time and wound up being invited to stay with them in Crete.

The most wonderful wife, Delphina, of the Greek Episcopal Church at the corner of our street in Newton, baked for a class, the most delicious spanakopita, putting so much love into this.

Resentment? I don't know what you are talking about. I really don't. I was just in Greece, this summer, and everyone was warm and welcoming.

I hope you lose these feelings because for me, they are simply wrong, and not about love, which is where this story, our collective stories, are headed.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
December 10, 2010
Why do we play with Dreidels on Chanukah
I love this. This is yet another reason to be thankful to the martyrs of Israel. And of coarse the survivers. If it wasn't for them we wouldn't have the wonderful word of G-D today.
I feel the Greeks still have recentment towards the Jewish people they just don't know why these days.
Thank you for this story and may G-D bless you and your's in Him.
Dharma
Adelaide, Australia
December 10, 2010
Suzi
Yes, dreidel (related to the word "drei" which means "spin") is indeed the Yiddish word.
Menachem Posner for Chabad.org
Montreal, QC
December 9, 2010
PLAYING WITH TOPS AT CHANUKAH
Thank you for the explanation. It is very informative and interesting. I don't think I ever knew this.

Now it all makes sense, and now I know how to play the game, not just spin the "top."

We now have the English word, the Hebrew word, so is Dreidel the Yiddish word?

Thank you
suzi
orlando, fl
December 9, 2010
letters
the letters nun gimmel heh sham have the same gematriya (numerical equivalent) as Moshiach.

p.s. Kate, they would very likely NOT have turned up dreidels in archeological digs, at least not with the letters on them which we have now, which commemorated the story and only came much later. Wooden tops of the time would have disintegrated by now

p.s. Axel - a very nice point you made, but also when all Jews around the world started praying 3 times daily for rain, then it rained. Jews out of Israel only start praying for rain on December 5th. So maybe that unity brought about the blessing we needed!
Tamar
NY
December 9, 2010
A spinning top
The dreidal has four sides like a house, the Holy Temple, and Ark of the Covenant.

When it is spinning, the square becomes a circle. Such is also the mystery of the Temple, and Ark. When they are standing still they are just structures, when we move them with prayer, they open up a doorway to the an infinite circle with no end!
Dr. Harry Hamburger
Miami, Fl.
December 8, 2010
I have just read this artical and find it great as I am only learning the history of our people.
Harry
Cape Town, R S A
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