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The Kabbalah of the Dreidel

The Kabbalah of the Dreidel


Do you know the rules of Dreidel? You spin a top with four Hebrew letters on it. A Gimmel wins the whole kitty, a Hei gets you half, Nun gets nothing and for a Shin you must pay in. Aside from the inherent Kabbalistic meaning behind this method, there is the practical Yiddishe origin. Gimmel stands for Gantz, meaning the whole thing. Hei is for Halb, meaning half. Nun stands for Nisht or nothing. And Shin is for Shtell arein or put in.

These are four basic modes of being, depending upon the person, his or her period in life, or the particular day. We all have our Gimmel days. This is when we feel that everything is going great and turning out in a sensational way. (It's been a while, eh?) We have our Hei days, when things are going quite well. The Nun and Shin need no explanation.

But each of these letters represents only one face of the Dreidel — only a single angle or perspective of the whole. What do the letters spell out? What is the "whole" of the Dreidel? Ness Gadol Hayah Sham, "a great miracle happened there." This refers to the great miracle of Chanukah that occurred in the Holy Land. The situation there seemed dire and beyond hope. They were definitely having a Shin day. The commitment of a few people turned the situation around (like a Dreidel) and brought out the miracle and G‑d's salvation.

The Macabees did not dwell on the fact that they were being oppressed and persecuted. They focused on the Gimmel that was on the other side of the Shin. And then they acted to create a vehicle for a Divine miracle.

It is vital to remember that whatever letter we seem to be getting at a particular point in life, it's all part of one Dreidel. And that Dreidel is telling us that miracles happen. We can transform the dark situations of life into the bright light of the Chanukah Menorah. This depends upon our faith in G‑d’s plan, and our commitment to create a vehicle for the miracle.

The Dreidel in the Bible?

Based on this theme we find a phenomenal "coincidence" with these four letters of the Dreidel. The first place where these letters occur as a word in the Torah is in the Parshah (Torah Reading) of Vayigash (Genesis 44-47, always in proximity to Chanukah), where they spell the word Goshnah, meaning "to Goshen."

The Patriarch Jacob was sending his son, Judah, to the Egyptian city of Goshen to set up a house of study, in advance of Jacob's, and his entire family's, relocation to that land. Our patriarch was aware that this was a dreadful descent into exile. But he looked at all of the letters of the Dreidel, and realized that hidden in the exile are the seeds of redemption. Study must continue, especially in exile. As long as we are able to retain the vital Divine information, the exile cannot hold sway over us. And our study and performance become the vehicle for the ultimate redemption.

This is similar to the origin of the Dreidel. According to tradition, during the times of Greek oppression Torah study was forbidden. When the children were studying, they would keep a Dreidel nearby to pull out and play in case they were discovered. (A bit opposite from our Hebrew school experience, perhaps.) At the time, the students may have thought that the game was a distraction from their true purpose in life. But in truth, G‑d conceals His countenance to draw out our commitment and connection to Him. It's all about revealing the Divine in the least likely places. That's what a miracle is.

The Dreidel was the formula to elicit the underlying truth of the Jewish soul.

The Dreidel and Moshiach

And one more idea. If you add up the Gimatria (the Hebrew numerical value) of the letters of the Dreidel, you get 358 (Nun (50) + Gimmel (3) + Hei (5) + Shin (300) = 358). This is the same value as Moshiach (Mem (40) + Shin (300) + Yud (10) + Chet (8) = 358), the Messiah. When the Moshiach comes, he will teach each individual how to see the Divine purpose in every facet of life. Even the time of exile and darkness will be illuminated.

We may have been focusing on one particular letter. Moshiach will teach us to see that all of life is a tapestry of Divine wonder.

Rabbi Yisrael Rice is the Executive Director of Chabad of Marin, Marin County, California and Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Jewish Learning Institute. He is the creator of the "Infinite Within" seminar and author of "The Kabbalah of Now."
Illustration: Mosaic by Chassidic artist Michoel Muchnik.
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Esther Liba December 12, 2017

With appreciation to Rabbi Rice I was impressed with this article well before I noticed the byline. A freilichen Chanukah, Rabbi Rice! We miss your well-thought-out gems of Chassidus! Reply

Leah December 23, 2016

Wow This was awesome. Thank you ! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 29, 2011

the significance of our dreidel Drei is the number 3 in German and this number is of great significance. For Woman in Kabala. Rei is for King (Latin) and Ray aurally same as in Light!

As in this beautiful explication of the Dreidel
there is a deep miracle within meaning.

The Messianic beauty explicated and this harmony of One, the Echo within Echod reverberates throughout Creation.

We are moving fast into a universal consciousness that All is G-d. Let us hold hands around the world. Reply

Anonymous Cape Town, South Africa December 20, 2011

Dreidel - wow! The wow I am feeling in my heart at this point in time is just too wonderful for words. I bless our Holy Heavenly Father and cannot wait for Moshiach to come. My heart is racing like a little child who will be opening a special gift soon. I simply want to burst from all the excitement. Reply

Rob & Debbie Miramichi N.B., Canada November 14, 2010

Learning about the Jewish Religion This web site has been very informative. Rob and I have a Jewish granddaughter and want to be able to share and understand her family's traditions. Thank You! Reply

Freddy Maier Kokhav Yair, Israel December 14, 2009

Dreidel and Land of Israel The Dreidel that we use in Israel is different because " Nes Gadol Haya Po". Po and not Sham....Here and not There.....

It would be interesting to know if there is any other explanation about the "Israeli Dreidel" Reply

samy poliwoda caracas, venezuela December 13, 2009

just something more! Just something more to add to the dreiddl issue...
behind the shin, theres always the Guimel, even when we see everything like a shin, its really behind scenes a Guimel... a happy chanukah! Reply

Rob Albuquerque, NM December 6, 2009

The Driedel Thank you very much for sharing the rich history. I found it very "divine" that the numerical value equals that of the Messiah.
What a wonderful and incredible G_D we serve!!!! Reply

Esther Berlin December 15, 2008

Wonderful! Thank you very much, I always wanted to know what the Dreidel is really about. Reply

Norton November 19, 2007

Israeli Dreidel This might be asking the question addressed by Anonymous, but anon's comment is not clear.
If it is an Israeli dreidel, isn;t the vaul with a pe, 158? So, what is that number's significance? Reply

kat rea visalia, ca January 26, 2007

Kabbalah of dreidel very refreshing and helpful. Reply

Anonymous December 15, 2006

The gematriah of the Israeli Draidel is the same as the name of Mosiach as the Talmud tells us his name is Menachem Reply

Anonymous Miami, FL December 12, 2006

Beautiful. It is amazing the depth and meaning in every aspect of life, when you take the time to focus on its message. Before I read the article, a dreidle was just a game to play with my kids. Now, wow!!! Who would of thought that a little dreidle could carry with it such a huge message. Reply

Hal Taylor Reno, Nevada/U.S.A. January 24, 2006

Chanuka Miracle The Miracle of Chanuka

The Miracle was
a cruse of pure oil
having such stamina,

still stood,

after all
the years exposed
to heresy, humiliation,
and death,

in the Temple
Again, in awe

of yet another

© 2005 Hal Taylor

Yisrael Rice Marin, CA December 31, 2005

Author's Response re: Nes Gadol Hayah Poh The Israeli Dreidle spells "Hagefen". See Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim) 7:13, "The Grape blossoms have opened." See the Ibn Ezra on 8:13 where he refers to this blossoming as the Jewish people returning to Hashem, and thus being redeemed. Reply

Muppe Glick Topanga, CA via December 30, 2005

Gimmel, Hay, Nun, SHIN or PAY? The Gimatria of the 4 Dreidle letters was interesting ... but what's the gimatria of the ISRAELI Dreidel since there it's: Ness Gadol Hayah Po and not SHAM? Pay instead of Shin? Reply

YYS NY, NY December 30, 2005

Great article! Reply

Andrea Philadelphia, PA December 29, 2005

This article is really so concise and clear. Anyone regardless of creed could easily take the meaning and apply it to their life. My friend Rabbi Goldman always tries to make the parshah at shabbos dinner like this, something you take away and can remember. To write like this is a gift. Reply

Anonymous Vancouver, Canada December 29, 2005

Boy, it seemed like it was just an ordinary dreidel. Reply

leah ced, ny December 27, 2005

this is a brilliant article- May we see the completed tapistry immediately. Deep concepts were made so clear in the article. Thank you Reply

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