“Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel, I made you out of clay.
Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel, with Dreidel I shall play.”
This timeless melody is of course from the song about the children’s Hanukkah toy, the Dreidel. The Dreidel is a spinning top, with four flat sides. On each side, there is painted, etched or stamped, a Hebrew letter. The letters are נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hey) and ש (Shin). Together, the letters are an acronym for Nes Gadol Haya Sham, or “A Great Miracle Happened There.”
Another variation of the dreidel is one that features the Israeli letter פ (Pe), instead of the Hebrew letter, Shin. This combination stands as an acronym for Nes Gadol Haya Po, which means, “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”
In many Jewish homes, it is customary to play dreidel games after the lighting of the Menorah. As the family gathers around, the players usually small children, are each given 10 or 15 coins. The coins are either real or more commonly, they are gold-wrapped chocolate coins commonly found in shops around Hanukkah. Some families like to use such items as nuts, candies or raisins in place of the coins. The basic premise is to have something as a marker.
Each player then puts one marker into the pot. Now, the game begins. As the first person spins the dreidel, depending on which letter of the dreidel is facing up when it stops, that is the action that will take place. Here is the letter with the cooresponding action.
Nun – The letter nun stands for “not.” When the dreidel has this letter facing up, nothing happens and the next player takes a turn spinning.
Gimel – Gimel stands for “all.” When Gimel is facing up, the player wins the entire pot!
Hey – Hey stands for “half.” Half of the pot is exactly what the player gets, rounded up of course, in the event the pot is an uneven number.
Shin – Shin stands for “put in.” When this letter is facing up, the player places a marker into the pot.
A different version of the dreidel game exists where the letter Nun stands for “take” and the letter Gimel stands for “give.” This version of the game is played until one player has all the markers.
The Significance of the Dreidel’s Four Sides
Some Jewish elders believe that the four sides of the dreidel are indicative of Israel’s four exiles – Greece, Rome, Babylonia and Persia. As for how the game came to be, many people believe that it was created by Jews as a means to trick the Greeks from discovering their study of the outlawed Torah. When the Jews went into caves to secretly study their Holy book, they usually left one behind as a lookout. When the lookout noticed a Greek soldier arriving, he would notify the others and the Jews would hide their study materials and begin spinning tops. The Greek soldiers were led to believe the Jews were congregating to gamble, not learn, and thus left them alone.
Not so much a game, Hanukkah Gelt is still enjoyed by children each year. The word “gelt” is Yiddish for “money.” Tradition has it that Hanukkah Gelt is often given to children. In many cases, grandparents give little ones a larger amount of Gelt, which tends to serve as a Hanukkah gift.
Over the years, American candy makers have adopted the Hanukkah Gelt in the form of chocolate coins wrapped in gold or silver foil. It is the cholocolate Hanukkah Gelt which is usually used as the markers in a game of dreidel.
To read more about Hanukkah’s rituals, foods, songs or significance, be sure to check out our other articles related to the celebration of Hanukkah.
Dave Donovan is a freelance copywriter living in Atco, N.J. An electrician for 15 years, an injury forced him to pursue his true passion - writing.