Dreidel Guide

What is a Dreidel

A Dreidel is a spinning top Jews customarily play with during the holiday of Hanukkah. It is has 4 Hebrew letters, Nun, Gimel, Heh, and Peh / Shin on each of its four sides each dictating a specific move in the game. It symbolizes the miracles of Hanukkah that happened to the Jews, and today has become a common symbol associated with the holiday.

Derivation and Origin

The word Dreidel comes from the Yiddish word drei which means to turn. The origins of the Dreidel are not known for sure. Jewish tradition has it that it was used as a ruse by Jewish children to fool the Greeks who had outlawed the studying of Torah amongst other Jewish observances. When children studying Torah were approached by Greek soldiers they would pull out their dreidels. Assuming they were playing a simple game the Greeks would leave and Torah study was resumed.

Form and Function

The size, material, & exact shape of the Dreidel differ but the overall form is the same. They range from small to large, round bottomed or pointed, and are usually made of plastic or wood. It has a four sided top with a little stem for spinning and 4 Hebrew letters נ(Nun), ג (Gimmel), ה(Heh), and ש(Shin)  painted or engraved on each side. These letters are an acronym for the phrase “נס גדול היה שם” which means ‘A great miracle happened there’ referring to the miracles that occurred during the time of the Maccabean revolt in Israel under Syrian-Greek rule. In Israel the ש is replaced with פ for פה which means 'here', rendering the phrase as “ A great miracle happened here.”

The Dreidel is one of the more popular customs of Hanukkah. It is used in a game termed ‘Dreidel’ and is generally played during family get togethers and holiday festivities after a possible meal of dairy products and potato latkes It is played by both kids and adults alike.

Game Rules

The Dreidel game is played with at least two people. Every member receives an equal amount of Chanukah Gelt (Hanukkah coins) or any other item to be used as points. The goal of the game is for one member to win all the coins. At the start of the game every game player puts one coin or any specified amount into the communal pot. Everyone takes turns spinning the Dreidel and depending on which side it lands on will perform 1 of 4 actions.

  1. Take the entire pot
  2. Take only half
  3. Lose to the pot
  4. Standby

The ‘Gimmel’ takes all, the ‘Heh’ takes half, the ‘Nun’ stands by, and the ‘Shin’ requires losing points to the pot.

Dun Aryeh is a writer on a number of Kabbalah / Breslov related blogs and websites.