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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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Anonymous 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 Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma 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. Reply

Tom December 12, 2015

Everybody does NOT need to be a winner! It just cheapens the effort of the true winner! Reply

Mrs. Chana Benjaminson via mychabad.org December 19, 2013

Top Sure, check out this link for a video demo. Reply

Anonymous December 15, 2013

jewish game with top and video do you have video of the top and how to play Reply

Laveda Chamousis Paradise, CA,USA December 24, 2011

top question thank you so much for the explanation. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma 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. Reply

Dharma Adelaide, Australia 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. Reply

Menachem Posner for Chabad.org Montreal, QC December 10, 2010

Suzi Yes, dreidel (related to the word "drei" which means "spin") is indeed the Yiddish word. Reply

suzi orlando, fl 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 Reply

Tamar NY 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! Reply

Dr. Harry Hamburger Miami, Fl. 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! Reply

Harry Cape Town, R S A December 8, 2010

I have just read this artical and find it great as I am only learning the history of our people. Reply

Ralph Rome, Italy December 8, 2010

A more rational approach One could also say that the game was influenced by the language of the place where Ashkenazi Jews lived, i.e. German. In fact nun stands for nicht, "nothing", he for halb, "half", and so on (shin = stell ein "put in", gimel = ganz "all"). At least the meaning of the letter of the game originated probably from these words... Reply

Axel Berger Odenthal-Heide, Germany December 8, 2010

Right perhaps, but relevant? Kate, I love that Dreidel legend even though I do not believe it, do not believe in eight days of light from one flask, and consider the Maccabee story highly exaggerated. What I do believe is this:

When the Carmel fire had raged for two days, giving many nations including Greece, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt a chance to help, it rained. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 7, 2010

the history of the dreidel I found this fascinating, and so clever. This is a lovely story that should be told more often. I am already in my sixties and didn't know this. There is always something new and wonderful to learn!

With thanks, Reply

Kate Gladstone Albany, NY/USA December 7, 2010

Anonymous asks the right question! Anonymous asks the right question!

With all the ancient Jewish items that archeologists constantly turn up in Israel, there has never yet turned up ONE dreidel from the Maccabean period or even near then. Reply

Anonymous December 9, 2007

Dreadil This is so intresting. Me and my daughter thought it was very cool. My daughter thinks theat they were very smart and clever to think of the dreadil game. I tink it is a good and fun way for children to learn their religoin. Reply

Baruch S. Davidson, Chabad.org "Ask the Rabbi" Team December 1, 2007

Re: What is the source? This reason is brought in the Sefer called Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun, authored by Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Hirschowitz (b. 1859).
This Sefer, explaining the meaning of various Jewish customs, was originally written in the 1890's. It soon became a classic work, and is frequently quoted in many authoritative texts.

Other reasons for the Dreidel are brought in various Seforim, among them B’nei Yissaschar and other Chassidic texts. Reply

Anonymous November 28, 2007

What is the source? What is the source for this idea that they played dreidel to fool the enemy? I know that this is the reason that we have always been told, but is there any way that you can verify the SOURCE?

Thanks! Reply

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