Give it a spin and share your wealth of gelt, small toys, and trinkets.

Spinning in place is an action rarely seen in nature, and yet it comes easily to the dreidel. Just a flick of the forefinger and thumb, and it's off, whirling away like a top. In time it slows, wobbles, and finally clatters to a halt. A single letter faces upward—if it's gimel, you've won. This is the game of dreidels, a traditional amusement during Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. Enjoyed primarily by children, it's fast paced and easy to play, with its four simple rules conveniently embossed on the dreidel itself. And yet the dreidel offers more than just fun; according to folklore it carries on its sides a reminder of the miracle behind the Hanukkah celebration.

What Is a Dreidel?

The classic dreidel is a four-sided spinning top made of wood, plastic, or the proverbial clay. They come in a wide range of forms and materials, from nearly indestructible metal and wooden versions to ornate not-to-be-played-with porcelain keepsakes. Few collectibles from before the twentieth century can be found today because, like many toys, dreidels were often casually discarded rather than passed down as heirlooms.

Hanukkah dreidels
Credit: tomertu / Getty

The History of Dreidel

Legend tells that dreidels were first spun in the second century B.C.E. by the Maccabees, a clan of Jews living under the harsh reign of Syrian king Antiochus IV, who had decreed that the study of the Torah—a practice paramount to Jewish spiritual life—was punishable by death. Whenever Maccabees gathered to discuss religious matters, they put a dreidel on the table and spun it boisterously if any authorities passed by, creating the illusion that they were simply wagering on a game of chance. There was some irony to this subterfuge, as the Torah forbids gambling. Eventually, the Maccabees overthrew their oppressors and held a ceremony to rededicate their temple. Hanukkah is the commemoration of this event (the word itself means "dedicate"), during which one day's worth of oil miraculously provided eight days of light. The characters on the dreidel recall the same story, being the first letters of the phrase Nes gadol hayah sham, or "A great miracle happened there."

The recorded history of the toy is shorter and rather less illustrious. It begins in medieval Germany, to which the earliest evidence of dreidel play has been traced. At that time, it was nothing more than a simple gambling game: You made a bet, spun the top, and took your chances. Then, as now, the Hebrew characters on the dreidel's four faces—nun (נ), gimel (ג), hey (ה), and shin (ש)—were the initial letters of the four rules of the game in Yiddish: nisht, "take nothing"; gantz, "take all"; halb, "take half"; and shtel, "add one." (It's worth noting that on Israeli dreidels, the last character is pei, not shin, changing the phrase Nes gadol hayah sham—"A great miracle happened there"—to Nes gadol hayah po—"A great miracle happened here.") How this altogether secular game became associated with Hanukkah remains unclear. Historically, it seems most likely that dreidels were assimilated into the holiday's nonreligious activities in much the same way as was the custom of gift giving, which also has no biblical basis.

The Rules of Play

To play, you need a dreidel, two or more people, and about ten counters per person. The counters can be coins, candies, buttons, nuts, or anything else. You play the game in rounds, with each player taking a turn until one player has all the counters. To start a game, each player puts a piece into the center. A player spins the dreidel and takes the action indicated by the upturned face of the top: nun, "take nothing"; gimel, "take all"; hay, "take half"; shin, "add one." If at any point the pot is down to one or two counters, everyone pitches in a counter. If you have no counters left, you are out of the game.

In any case, dreidels fit well with the joyful spirit and child-centered focus of the modern Hanukkah celebration. Once you know the rules of play, consider our ideas that allow you to present the dreidel as a small gift: nestle a silver dreidel and some foil-wrapped sweets into a felt coin purse, wrap a stack of coins in crepe paper and tied with ribbon bows, or use a paper dreidel box to hold candies, nuts, or any other kind of counter. The packages include pieces for placing mock bets. It's customary to wager with dreidels for gelt (Yiddish for "money")—chocolate coins wrapped in foil—but you can substitute anything you like. Just remember to divvy up the winnings among the players, as the betting is only for fun.


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