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Why Do We Play With a Top on Chanukah?

Why Do We Play With a Top on Chanukah?



Why do we play with Dreidels on Chanukah?


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 (24)
January 3, 2016
This article tells very precisely of how the game dreidel is played today, but not how it was played in the past. To fully understand the concept of dreidel, I need to know the origin of how the game was played in the past.
Thank You,
Maddie Cortez, Los Angeles
December 14, 2015
to top it all off
there are many reasons to think about that spin of the dreidel, and the significance of what falls, the Hebrew, and then, the gold coin. there is not one explanation but myriad and they keep coming, and all it could be said, are beautiful. it's said it all comes out in the wash. that's the spin, and when something is spinning really fast, it all becomes ONE. And that's the Shema, the watchword of our faith.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
December 12, 2015
Everybody does NOT need to be a winner! It just cheapens the effort of the true winner!
December 19, 2013
Sure, check out this link for a video demo.
Mrs. Chana Benjaminson
December 15, 2013
jewish game with top and video
do you have video of the top and how to play
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.
Adelaide, Australia
December 10, 2010
Yes, dreidel (related to the word "drei" which means "spin") is indeed the Yiddish word.
Menachem Posner for
Montreal, QC
December 9, 2010
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
orlando, fl
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