There was leisure while the Hanukkah lights burned — tradition dictates that no one is to engage in manual labor or even study while the lights burn. Many would take to cardplaying, usually forbidden during the rest of the year. On Hanukkah it was regarded not as gambling but as a sport of wits; even Rabbi Levi of Berdichev did not frown upon it. Chess, kvitlah, and dominoes were other pastimes. Intellectuals would seek to demonstrate their mental acumen in even a lighter and imaginative vein, but always relative to the festival's import. Scholars would thus vie with each other in interpreting ketowes, or riddles. But most popular of all Hanukkah games was, and remains today, the dreidel.

As the name from the German dreihen, "to spin," implies, this is a spinning top (in Hebrew sevivon). This top was popular in medieval Germany; its letters in Latin characters: N-nisht (nothing); G-gantz (all); H-halb (half) and S-shtel (put), were transferred to popular Jewish script and usage. Symbolically, the top recalls the "turnover" of events when Judah the Maccabee's few forces vanquished and toppled the many in Antiochus' army. The natural sequence of events was overturned: the strong were spun into the hands of the weak, as enunciated in the Al-ha-Nissim prayer of Hanukkah.

To justify the gambling, many interpreted the game as a disguised form of studying. When the Jews were not allowed to engage in the study of the Law, they would assemble to play the game and at the same time discuss the Law orally. The Hebrew letters nun, gimel, heh, shin on the dreidel are usually explained as the initial letters of the phrase that epitomized the great event >— Nes gadol hayah sham, "A great miracle happened there." However, these letters became directions for a put-and-take game; indicating nun >— take nothing; gimel >— take all; heh >— take half, and shin >— put in the pot. In Israel the letters are changed to nun, gimel, heh, peh; the peh, meaning poh (here), referring to the Temple area; but this was not universally accepted.

Though the playing of the teetotum (dreidel) originated in medieval days and was very popular in mid-nineteenth century London under its name, derived from the letter T on one side, meaning totum ("take all"), it was given a Jewish characterization by the rabbis' "discovery" that the letters were "prophesied" in the Bible. Confirmation was found in the biblical portion read in the Hanukkah period, i.e., the story of Judah's coming to Goshen. The Bible relates that when Jacob planned to visit Joseph in Egypt and to settle there temporarily, he sent Judah to precede him, "to point the Goshen" (Genesis 46:28). The Hebrew letters of Goshna, "to Goshen," are similar to those on the dreidel, emphasizing that Jacob's son Judah, as well as Judah the Macabee, preceded to show the way for all Israel. Since the letters on the dreidel are equal in numbers to the letters in Mashiah, Messiah (both are equivalent to 358), many believed that the Messiah of the House of Judah would be the appointed one, to show the way for further miracles for Israel. The struggle of the Hasmoneans was seen as a symbolic reversal of the bondage of Goshen.

In the East European schools of the pre-Hitler period the children during the early part of the month of Kislev would be busy carving dreidels from wood or casting them in lead. An allusion to the wood product was found in the prophetic reading of the week, "And thou, son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it: For Judah, and for the children of Israel, his companions" (Ezekiel 37:16). Thus the dreidel of wood spelled "unity" for Israel.

The letters were also mystically interpreted as alluding to the components of man's being as indicated in the Hebrew: nefesh >— soul; guf >— body; sekhel >— mind; this is hakol >— "everything," all that characterizes man.

It was also observed that the four letters (358 together in gematria) are equivalent numerically to nahash, the serpent or evil spirit. The dreidel is spun to topple evil and to bring forth the messianic era establishing God's kingdom. The Hebrew phrase "God is king, God rules and shall rule" is also the equivalent of 358.

In sum, it was stressed that the world is like a dreidel. Everything is set forth in cycles; things change and spin, but all emanate from one Root. The dreidel reflects the game of chance in life as an on-going event. Its letters are also the initials of the phrase "You redeemed Your very own tribe; Mount Zion" (Psalms 74:2).

excerpted From: Sidney B. Hoenig, "Hanukkah Oddities," in The Hanukkah Anthology (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1992)



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