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Spinning & Winning: The Whys & Hows of Dreidel

Why do we play the dreidel on Hanukkah? What does the dreidel symbolize, and what do all the Hebrew letters on it mean?

We’re breaking down everything you’ve wanted to know about this classic Hanukkah toy, including the traditional rules so you can play in your own home!

One of Hanukkah’s most curious customs is the spinning top – called a dreidel in Yiddish and sevivon in Hebrew – that is played with throughout the eight-day holiday. The unusual game has a fascinating history and even more interesting rules: read on to find out more!

History of the Dreidel & Why We Play It on Hanukkah
Spinning & Winning: The Whys & Hows of Dreidel

According to Jewish legend, the tradition of dreidel goes all the way back to the origins of Hanukkah itself. When the Greeks invaded ancient Israel, they prohibited the practice of Judaism. Shabbat, brit milah (circumcision) and ritual slaughter were all outlawed, and teaching Torah was strictly forbidden. Passing on the Torah is one of Judaism’s most sacred traditions, and teachers and Rabbis refused to give it up.

Although all Jewish schools and public meeting places were officially closed, teachers resourcefully gathered their students into homes and quiet buildings so that they could keep learning. It is said that the Jews crafted spinning tops for themselves - the precursors of today's dreidels - so that when Greek officials conducted raids and inspections, students could hide their scrolls and instead seem utterly absorbed in a complex betting game involving spinning tops and complicated rules. This allowed their illicit studies to stay hidden.

After the Jews recovered their Temple and national identity, the spinning toys remained popular – partly in tribute to the role they played in maintaining Judaism, but mostly because they’re the original source of family fun. It has also been suggested by historians that the dreidel game became particularly popular among Jews in medieval Europe, as the Hanukkah answer to popular Christmas games of the time.

Whether you call it dreidel in Yiddish or sevivon in Hebrew, today whole families continue to gather around after lighting the Hanukkah menorah to indulge in this beloved spinning game together and pass on Jewish tradition!

What Are the 4 Symbols on a Dreidel?

There are traditionally four Hebrew letters on the dreidel: nun, gimmel, hey, and shin, initials for a common Hebrew phrase associated with Hanukkah, Nes Gadol Haya Sham meaning "a miracle happened there." In Israel however, it is more common to find dreidels with the letter peh instead of a shin, changing the phrase to Nes Gadol Haya Po or "a miracle happened here". 

Many Jews in the diaspora still try to purchase dreidels with peh as a special connection to or reminder of the Land of Israel. On the other hand, some communities living in Israel keep the shin-bearing dreidels, as a reminder that the miracle happened in the Holy Temple that no longer stands, but which Jews traditionally pray will one day be rebuilt.

Spinning & Winning: The Whys & Hows of Dreidel
Rules for Playing Dreidel
Spinning & Winning: The Whys & Hows of Dreidel

The rules for playing Hanukkah dreidel could hardly be simpler!

Players start off with an equal number of tokens, usually using chocolate coins known as ‘gelt’ or other small treats or coins. You and your competitors can decide on any number between 10-15.

Sitting around a hard surface like a table or floor, everyone puts in one token or piece of gelt towards the pot. Then everyone goes around in turns to spin the dreidel. Depending on which side is facing up when it stops spinning, the player gives or takes game pieces from the pot:

  • נ‎ (nun): nothing happens and it is the next player’s turn
  • ג‎ (gimmel): the player takes everything that is currently in the pot
  • ה‎ (hey): the player gets half of the pieces in the pot, rounding up if necessary
  • ש‎ (shin) or in Israel פ‎ (peh): the player adds one coin to the pot

 

Once a player is out of pieces, they're "out" or can ask another player for a "loan." The last player standing wins!

It’s a great game that the whole family can enjoy – so make sure you buy your dreidels for Hanukkah with plenty of time to spare!

Winning at Dreidel

There are lots of different styles of ending a game of Hanukkah dreidel. Usually, the game is over when one player controls all of the coins. With lots of players, there is also an option to set a time limit and see who has the most at that point.

Of course, one other way that a game of dreidel may end is when the kids decide to devour all their chocolate coins, which out of all of the dreidel symbols must be the sweetest!

 

Happy Hanukkah, and we hope you enjoy your dreidel games with your whole family.

Be sure to check out our fabulous dreidel catalog to be prepared for Hanukkah 2022!

Spinning & Winning: The Whys & Hows of Dreidel

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