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The Spinner of Our Lives

The Spinner of Our Lives

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Weeks before Chanukah, as I walk by the bakeries in the shuk (market) near my home in Jerusalem, there are already delicious-smelling fried jelly doughnuts in the stalls. I know that this means that I will also be seeing menorahs and dreidels of all shapes and sizes in storefront windows.

It seems that every year the dreidel-makers try to outdo themselves. The simple wooden dreidels pale in comparison to the dreidels that now light up with flashing lights, and even make music. I don’t know. I guess I am old-fashioned, but I still love those simple dreidels of my youth. The flashing ones run out of batteries too quickly, the singing ones give me a headache, and what good are all those lights if they distract you from seeing the four letters that you need to be able to see in order to play the game?

Every year the dreidel-makers try to outdo themselves

Because the whole purpose of the dreidel is to play the game. What is this game-playing tradition that we have on Chanukah?

Before I explain why we play dreidel on Chanukah, let’s first sit down to play.

Everyone, get your dreidels out (the old fashioned wooden or plastic kind made of one color and with a letter on each side). Now hold the skinny part on top and turn it, and the dreidel will spin. If you want, you can get fancy and try to spin it upside down, or, like my children, try the drop-and-spin method. The dreidel spins and lands on one of its four sides. Each side has a letter written on it. In Israel, the Hebrew letters are nun, gimmel, hey,and peh, an acronym for the sentence “Nes gadol hayah po—A big miracle happened here.” Outside of Israel, the letter peh is substituted with a shin, making the letters an acronym for “Nes gadol hayah sham—A big miracle happened there.” A pile of peanuts, chocolates or some other treat sits in the middle, and the letter the dreidel lands on determines how much of the pile you get. If you land on the nun you don’t get anything; on gimmel you get the whole pot; on hey you get half; and on peh or shin you have to put some back into the pot. The winner is determined by who has the most treats at the end. Talent? You don’t need any. Skill? It’s got nothing to do with it.

So why do we play this game in Chanukah?

I’m going to explain, but first I want to share with you something that happened to me the other day. I went to the hospital to visit a friend. It “happened” to be that her roommate was a very elderly woman. I nodded and smiled to the woman as I walked into the room and went to sit down next to my friend’s bed. We began to chat, and then we heard crying. I opened the curtain separating the two patients and peeped out at the elderly woman. She started to scream, “It’s burning. It’s burning!” I jumped up and went over to her. “What savta (grandmother)? What’s burning?”

She pointed below. “Tell them to change me. It’s burning.”

I rang the nurse’s call button. No one came. I stepped out of the room to look for a nurse. I couldn’t find any. I walked around, and went up to the nurses’ station. “The savta in room 17 is in pain. She’s crying; someone needs to come change her.”

“We will, we will, but we are very busy and it’s not a priority.”

“Not a priority???”

I went back to the room and told the woman, “Savta, I told them, they said that they will come.”

She cried out to me. “It’s burning, it’s burning!”

I took a deep breath. The Spinner of the dreidel had spun me here, and I knewIt's burning, it's burning! what I had to do.

Very carefully, and trying to be as modest and respectful as possible, I changed the savta’s diaper. I finished, washed my hands, and gave the savta a soft kiss on her forehead. Then I closed the curtain and went back to my friend.

All that day I couldn’t stop thinking about that experience. It wasn’t for nothing that G‑d put me, a doula, who is used to working with women’s bodies, in that situation at that time. It wasn’t for nothing that I went to visit my friend in the morning and not in the afternoon. It wasn’t for nothing that the nurses were busy, that the woman was crying. It wasn’t for nothing.

Nothing is for nothing.

Back to the dreidel and the game.

When the Greeks occupied Israel over 2,000 years ago, they made learning Torah illegal. Jews were also prohibited from keeping Shabbat, from sanctifying the new moon (and hence sanctifying all the holidays), and from performing a circumcision (brit milah) on their sons. The Greeks had a goal with their laws. They wanted to take G‑d out of the picture. They wanted to create a society in which you lived only for the moment and only for yourself.The Greeks were powerful; they were in control. Or so they thought.

There were Jews who defied the Greeks. They continued keeping the commandments and teaching their children Torah. The teachers would teach Torah in caves, hiding from the Greeks. Tradition has it that if Greek soldiers would find them in the caves, the children would take out clay dreidels and begin to play. The Greeks would ask them what they were doing, and the children would reply, “We are playing a game.”

Why this game in particular? Because subtly, subconsciously, the children were saying with this game: The dreidel doesn’t just fall on its own! There is a Spinner in the game. Your power, your might, your skills and your talents don’t matter. It’s your fate that gets you where you are, and that is controlled by the Spinner. You have a mission and a purpose in life. And every place you “fall,” it is because the Spinner wants you there.

Nothing is for nothing

Everything about the story of Chanukah is a bit illogical. How did such a small group win against the most powerful army in the world? How did one day’s worth of oil last for eight days? It’s all incomprehensible. And it all totally makes sense when you understand that there is a Spinner, a G‑d who controls and watches over each and every one of our actions. There are no “coincidences” in life. And so, if you are put in a certain situation, stop and think about why you are there. Because it’s not for nothing.

Originally from northern California and a Stanford University graduate, Elana Mizrahi now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children. She is a doula, massage therapist, writer, and author of Dancing Through Life, a book for Jewish women. She also teaches Jewish marriage classes for brides.
Artwork by Yitzchok Moully.
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Kate Gladstone Albany, NY, USA December 19, 2014

to “ancient dreidles / H. A.” I know ... but I can't find ancient unmarked ones, either ... or any from the generations right after the Maccabees, which WOULD be marked ... Reply

Eliah Inbar Agoura Hills , California via chabadconejo.com December 19, 2014

Inspiration I enjoyed reading this article. It truly is of no coincidence. I am going to use it (not including the Savta part) for my daughter's Hanukkah party with her Gurl Scout troop. Wonderful insight and perfect for 12 year old girls! May the Spinner bless us all with light and peace. Chag Sameach! Reply

H.A. nmb December 18, 2014

ancient dreidles They may have played with tops, or dreidels but the letters would not have been alluding to the miracle - since it hadn't happened yet. I think that the Greek culture encouraged gambling and frivolity, so it was a camouflage for sitting and learning Torah.
The article was beautiful! Reply

Gabriela Los Angeles December 16, 2014

This was so beautiful, enlightening and heartfelt. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words with us! Reply

Yosefa Oregon December 16, 2014

Today's Greeks Dearest Elana - you always help me think better due to your insights! My further thought is that the Greeks were an entire culture, not just military.

To me, they are like today's secular liberals who think that everybody can and should think the way they do. Most schools and news sources share their thoughts, so they are shocked and often angry when they encounter someone who does not agree with even their basic premises. Yet we stand strong in our own traditions and beliefs because we have HaShem and Torah with us.

When I light my menorah tonight I will remember your article. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous Canada December 16, 2014

You're Braver Than I Am Bless you for taking care of the other patient. Try that here in Canada and if you're lucky, you'll avoid being hustled out by security and maybe being charged with assault, to be followed by a civil suit from the patient's family. Reply

rena g Tzfat December 16, 2014

I love your writing and these beautiful insights. I'll never look at a dreidel the same way again. Reply

Kate Gladstone Albany, NY, USA December 16, 2014

Have the archeologists ever found any Maccabean-era dreidels? Have the archeologists ever found any Maccabean-era dreidels?
I have looked for pictures of dreidels in books on Maccabean-era archeological finds, but without success. Reply

M.S. America is no Different December 14, 2014

Oh, such a nice article! Yes, yes, you said it! There is a Spinner! And we are freiliche dreidels...no Jewish custom is superficial.

That's why they are carefully guarded and passed down. Reply

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