The traditional Chanukah dreidel (spinning top) is a throwback to the times when the Greek armies of King Antiochus controlled the Holy Land, before the Maccabees defeated them and sent them packing. The powerful regime passed a series of laws outlawing the study of Torah and many of the mitzvot. The Jews were compelled to take their Torah learning “underground,” for they knew that a Jew without Torah is like a fish out of water.
Jewish children resorted to learning Torah in outlying areas and forests. Even this plan was not foolproof, for the enemy had many patrols. The children 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.
Our Chanukah dreidel games are a salute to these Jewish heroes of yore.
The classic dreidel is a four sided spinning top made of wood, plastic, or the proverbial clay. On the four sides of the dreidel appear four letters from the Hebrew alphabet—nun (נ), gimmel (ג), hey (ה), and shin (ש). These four letters are an acronym for "nes gadol hayah sham"—"a great miracle happened there."
In Israel, the actual setting of the Chanukah miracle, the last letter, shin, is substituted with a pey (פ), which stands for "po"—"here."
Age range: Three and up (little children might require assistance with spinning the dreidel)
- 1 Dreidel (or, accelerate the pace of the game by supplying each player with his/her own dreidel)
- 2 or more players (the more the merrier!)
- The "Ante"—nuts, pennies, nickels, chocolate coins, nuts, or just about anything else...
- Flat Surface (such as floor or wide table) for dreidel spinning
- A Chanukah Festive Mood
Platter of Latkes and/or Sufganiot
- All players sit around the playing area.
- The "ante" is equally divided amongst all players.
- Everyone takes a turn at spinning the dreidel; the one with the highest spin has first turn. (Nun is highest, then gimmel, hey, and shin.) If there is a tie for highest, those who tied spin again.
- Everyone puts one unit of the ante (penny, nut, etc.) into the pot.
- The one who has first turn is followed in clockwise direction by all the others.
- Player A spins the dreidel while everyone waits in utter suspense (in the interest of speeding up the game, some knock down the dreidel mid-spin instead of waiting for it to come to a rest).
If the dreidel lands on a...
Nun - נ
You've just wasted your time. Absolutely nothing happens. You may as well have taken a bathroom break instead of that useless spin. Better luck next time!
Nun stands for the Yiddish word nul, which means zero, nothing, nil. After your exercise in futility it's time now for the player to your left to take a spin.
If however your dreidel landed on a...
Gimmel - ג
Wow! Amazing! You did it! You get to take the whole pot! Take it quick and then do a little victory dance around the room. Pay no attention to the envious stares you are getting. You are an absolute dreidel pro!
Gimmel stands for gantz, which means whole. Everyone, including you, now puts another unit of the ante into the pot, and the person to your left tries his luck at spinning.
But, it's hard to be so lucky every time. Sometimes your dreidel will land on a...
Hey - ה
Okay, you could have done better, but you could have done worse. You get to take half of the pot. If the pot has an odd amount of units, don't try to split that penny, nut, or piece of chocolate in half. Leave it there. Take the high road. Let the others believe that it is beneath you to care...
Hey stands for halb, half. The pot has now been diminished, and it's time for the player to your left to take a stab at riches.
But don't complain. The dreidel could have landed on a...
Shin - ש
The absolute worst. The dregs. You now have to put another unit into the pot! You better figure out how to improve your spinning technique before you will be forced to take out a second mortgage on your home.
Shin is for shenk; yes, that means give. Your hope now is that the pot will still be around next time it is your turn to spin. Maybe then you'll get a gimmel and recoup your losses...
The game ends when one of the following occurs:
a) The platter of latkes or sufganiot is finished.
b) One of the children becomes whiny (usually upon realizing that pretty soon he/she will have no more chocolate coins remaining).
c) Mom or Dad have some urgent business to attend to.
d) The crack of dawn has arrived.
And the real endgame is the lesson this game has taught. We are overjoyed about the miracles and wonders G‑d did for our ancestors. Throughout Chanukah this is constantly on our mind—even when we are involved with fun and games!
Watch the Rebbe explain the deeper purpose of Chanukah games and gatherings.