The dreidel (or sevivon) is, probably, the most familiar symbol of Chanukah. It’s a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side. The letters are an acronym for the Hebrew words: נס גדול היה שם or “nes gadol haya sham” (a great miracle happened there), which refers to the miracle of the oil. In Israel, the acronym changes a bit to read נס גדול היה פה or “nes gadol haya po” (a great miracle happened here).
A popular belief is the dreidel game commemorates a game devised by the Jews to camouflage the fact that they were studying Torah, a practice that was outlawed by Greeks. Jews would gather in caves to study, posting a lookout to alert the group to the presence of Greek soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the Jews would hide their scrolls and spin tops, so the Greeks thought they were gambling rather than breaking the law by learning.
HOW TO PLAY:
Everyone puts something into the center of the group: pennies, candy, raisins, nuts, markers, etc. Then people take turns spinning the dreidel to see what happens next.
There are two versions of the game, so you can choose the one you prefer:
- נ (Nun) -- nisht, "nothing"–nothing happens and the next player spins OR nim, "take"–the player takes one from the pot
- ג (Gimel) -- gants, "all"–the player takes the entire pot OR gib, "give"–the player puts one in the pot
- ה (Hey) -- halb, "half"–the player takes half of the pot, rounding up if there is an odd number (the same in both versions)
- ש (Shin) -- shtel ayn, "put in"–the player puts one marker in the pot OR shtil, "still" (as in "stillness")–nothing happens and the next player spins
Alternately, the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin might also represent the four kingdoms which tried to destroy us in ancient times:
N = Nebuchadnezzar = Babylon
H = Haman = Persia = Madai
G = Gog = Greece
S = Seir = Rome
When does the game end?
According to chabad.org The game ends when one of the following occurs: a) The platter of latkes or sufganiot is finished.
b) One of the children becomes whiny (usually upon realizing that pretty soon he/she will have no more chocolate coins remaining).
c) Mom or Dad have some urgent business to attend to.
d) The crack of dawn has arrived.
Dreidels were historically made of wood. Today you can find dreidels created in any number of materials, from wood to metal to polymer clay. Thinking of making one? Here’s a great website with some mechanical specifics.