Spinning and Winning: Why We Play Dreidel

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 Hanukkah. The unusual game has a fascinating history and even more interesting rules: read on to find out more!

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. The Jews crafted spinning tops for themselves, 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. Today, whole families gather round after lighting the Hanukkah candles to indulge in the game together.

The classic version of the spinner has four sides. On each side is a Hebrew letter: nun, gimmel, hey and shin (or pay in Israel). This is the first letter from each word in the phrase nes gadol hayah sham/poh – a great miracle happened there (here in Israel).

To play, each player starts with a handful of chocolate coins, raisins, poker chips or something similar, with a few more forming a central “bank””. They take it in turns to spin the dreidel, and the letter on the uppermost side when it falls determines their play. The rules are:

Nun – nothing happens (and the next player’s turn starts).

Gimmel – you win everything! Take everything in the center pot. If you want to keep playing, everyone then puts one coin/chip etc back into the middle.

Hey – you win half! Take half of what’s in the middle.

Shin – add one of your coins/chips etc to the central pot.

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