Under the crushing rule of the Greco-Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes, Jews were forbidden to learn Torah. Jews not studying? Not an option. They studied secretly, posting children outside to watch for soldiers. When the king’s men marched by, the young guards pulled out their tops and played, signalling to the adults to hide the holy books. Thus was born the custom of playing dreidel on Hanukkah. According to tradition, that is.
Those killjoys, modern historians, insist that the dreidel has its origins in a gambling game from 16th century England and Ireland called totum or teetotum. The game involved a top with letters on each of its four sides, which stood for an action to be taken by the player. This game eventually made its way to Germany and to Eastern European Jewry. The word dreidel is the Yiddish version of the German word “drehen,” meaning “to spin.” (In Israel a dreidel is called a sevivon from the Yiddish “to turn around”). The letters on the dreidel — nun, gimel, hey and shin stand for “nes gadol haya shem,” “a great miracle happened there.” In Israel the shin is replaced with a pey for poh “here.”
My inner child prefers the first story. No matter, there are dreidels for everyone in as many shapes, colors and materials as the human imagination can conjure. Depending on your finances, you can purchase inexpensive plastic or wooden dreidels, among the best for playing the game, or handcrafted and bejeweled dreidels that run into the thousands of dollars. Tiffany, Waterford, Baccarat, Lenox and Godiva Chocolates all sell dreidels, some of them edible. The next time you’re in Paris, there’s a shop on the Rue de Turenne where you can find a violet-hued, turquoise-tipped dreidel made of Murano glass. Fortunately many of the stores we really shop in, from Crate and Barrel to Target, sell them, also.
Dreidels are made from paper, crystal, ceramic, glass, clay (of course!), brass, sterling silver, 14 karat gold and Jerusalem stone. There are Russian nesting doll dreidels and dreidels shaped like ballerinas, Noah’s ark, your favorite pet, golf balls, baseballs, footballs and basketballs.
Dreidels manage to spin their magic in unexpected sizes and places. The 34-foot dreidel built by Congregation Shaare Shamayim in Pennsylvania is rumored to be the world’s largest. Israeli artist Nilly Gill constructed a 10-foot, walk-in “Dreidel House,” which was exhibited at the L’Auberge Del Mar Garden Amphitheater in San Diego. Dreidels have been featured in exhibits at Jewish and art museums. The Braidel is a Braille dreidel designed by Art as Responsa. Astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman brought a dreidel aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in December 1993 and took it for a zero gravity spin.
As for playing the dreidel game, there are many variations. There’s the traditional game in which players spin the dreidel and act according to which letter comes up when the dreidel stops: shin–put one in, hey–take half, gimel–take all, nun–take nothing. Some play for candy or coins For the more mature set there’s blackjack dreidel, with a numerical value assigned to each letter. The first person who reaches a chosen value, such as 18 (chai/ life), wins. Dreidel bingo is played on an all-letter board. In dreidel musical chairs, players move while the dreidel spins.
In Williamsburg in Brooklyn, they’re serious about their dreidels. Once a year spinners compete in Major League Dreidel at the Full Circle Bar. Last year’s team names included Hanukkah Hustlers, Latkatonic and Gimel Da Loot. Their motto: No Gelt, No Glory.
On a more serious note, rabbis, scholars and Jewish thinkers have given us food for thought – more nutritious than latkes — on which to cogitate as our dreidels twirl. One midrash teaches that the letters on the dreidel represent the four kingdoms which tried to destroy Israel in ancient times, but have disappeared from history: nun stands for Nebuchadnezzar/Babylonia; hey for Haman/Persia; gimel for Gog/Greece and shin for Se’ir/Rome.
Dr. Lee Ratzan of Rutgers University has some interesting insights into the spiritual dimensions of the dreidel. “The dreidel spins around a central point, toppling when it loses its connection to that point,” he wrote. “So do we, when we lose our Center. Spinning the dreidel is a symbol that life revolves about a Central Presence.” Ratzan also believes that “a case can be made that the human spirit has four primary attributes: self (soul, nefesh), body (guf), reason (sechel) and everything (by extension, evil, hakol).” When a person spins the dreidel, the four sides blend into “a harmonious oneness around a single infinite point.” Spinning the dreidel becomes a symbolic way of striving for harmony.
While president of City College in New York, Dr. Robert Marshak held annual dreidel spinning contests at the school. He employed his gifts as a world-renowned theoretical physicist to explain to faculty and students how he prepared for the contest. “What you need is the biggest angular momentum you can produce over the shortest period of time to give you the greatest torque,” he wrote. “This will maximize angular acceleration, which is the change of angular velocity with respect to time.” One year Rabbi Irving Greenberg, who was teaching in the Jewish Studies department at the time, was the winner. Said Rabbi Greenberg,” The wisdom of the ages has triumphed over physics.”
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