Dreidel: A Hanukkah Holiday Tradition

Dreidel: A Hanukkah Holiday Tradition

by Maxine Carter-Lome, Publisher
“I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay.
And when it’s dry and ready, Oh dreidel, I shall play.”

A dreidel or dreidl (known in Hebrew as a sevivon) is a four-sided spinning top and a beloved children’s game played during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. A dreidel is typically made of wood, plastic, or the proverbial clay from the popular children’s song. Each side of the dreidel is marked with a letter from the Jewish alphabet representing the words nun, gimel, hey, and shin. Each word connotes a different action to be taken: Nun: The player takes nothing; Gimel: The player takes all; Hey: The player takes half; and Shin: The player puts in. Together nun, gimmel, hey and shin translate to “a great miracle happened there.”
Despite its association as a holiday tradition, Israeli collector Rachel Bar-Lev shares that the dreidel is not Jewish in origin and its connection to Hanukkah is late, noting that archeologists have found multi-sided tops dating back to as early as 2000 BCE.
Legend has it that when the ancient Greeks outlawed the study of Torah, Jews would outsmart them by playing with a spinning top—a popular gambling device—while learning Torah orally. That way if the Greeks were out to arrest renegade Torah scholars, they would find a group of sinful “gamblers” instead and leave them alone. The story is, however, nothing more than that, according to Jewish scholars.
Most scholars seem to agree that the dreidel is derived from a 16th century Irish or English gambling game called “teetotum,” which was popular around Christmas time and played by men in bars and inns. Like the game of dreidel, teetotum was played with a four-sided top, each side bearing a letter corresponding to the first letters of the Latin words for “nothing,” “half,” “everything,” and “put in.” Participants would ante up and the side up when the top stopped twirling would determine whether they won or lost. Over the centuries teetotum and various appropriations of the game spread throughout Europe and ultimately to America.
Rabbi David Golinkin, President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, once wrote, “Our Eastern European game of dreidel (including the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin) is directly based on the German equivalent of the totum game: N = Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in.”
The word “dreidel” is a Yiddish word, originating from ‘drei,’ meaning ‘turn.’ The Hebrew word for dreidel, sevivon, follows the same logic and comes from the Hebrew root, ???, meaning ‘to turn.’ It is said that the word sevivon and the game as we know it was created by the adolescent son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the founder of Modern Hebrew.
In addition to the more commonplace materials of wood and plastic, dreidels can be made of glass, sterling silver, ceramic, brass, ivory, and crystal, and are often given as gifts and displayed as decoration or pieces of a collection.
Ask a collector ‘why dreidels?’ and most often the answer starts with their childhood and the story of miracles connected to the game, the holiday, and the tradition.
Dreidels come in all sizes and price points and can range from fun and kitschy (“dreidelites” extend the concept to anything dreidel-inspired) to pieces of fine art. As a relatively modern game toy, collectors are mostly buying 20th century “art dreidels” for the value of the material, craftsmanship, and maker. While this may never be a “big money” collectibles category, collecting and playing with dreidels is a fun way to connect with our past and carry forward beloved family traditions.

Dreidel