Gyration Nation: The Weird Ancient History of the Dreidel

Legend has it that when the ancient Greeks outlawed the study of Torah, Jews used spinning tops — popular gambling devices — to outsmart them.

Anat Rosenberg
Anat Rosenberg
Credit: Dreamstime
Anat Rosenberg
Anat Rosenberg

Compared with Playstation, Rainbow Loom or even the popular Japanese spinning tops Beyblades, the low-tech dreidel should almost consider itself lucky. It might not get as much love as those other toys, but it’s certainly no flash in the pan. The trusty dreidel has been trotted out during Hanukkah for hundreds of years, joining the menorahs and candles, as well as the chocolate gelt and oily latkes that are mainstays of the Festival of Lights.

Jews may be familiar with the dreidel thanks to Hanukkah, but it actually has quite a storied history. Different people in different languages have long played games – mainly of the gambling kind – using a multisided top inscribed with letters or symbols.

The exact origins of the spinning-top game are unknown, but there is evidence that Babylonian players used blocks adorned with images of Ishtar and Ninurta (known to the Romans as Venus and Saturn, respectively) that signified winning and losing. Some say the game was introduced in India and made its way to Europe.

Most scholars seem to agree that the dreidel is derived from the English version of the top, called a teetotum. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the teetotum dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times, leading some to believe it may have been in use in the Hasmonean dynasty – and others to think that’s where its tenuous connection to Hanukkah begins. 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 bust renegade Torah scholars, they would find a group of sinful “gamblers” instead and leave them alone. Not everyone believes that nifty tale, though.

“Sefer Hamoadim,” an encyclopedic anthology about holidays celebrated in Israel, also says the game was spawned in ancient Rome or Greece and brought to England by Roman soldiers or settlers – which explains why the letters on some English tops are Roman (Latin): A for aufer (take from the pot); D for depone (put into the pot), N for nihil (nothing) and T for totum (take all).

By the 16th century, the game of teetotum had become increasingly popular in England and Ireland, and by 1801, the letters adorning the sides of the top were altered to serve as a mnemonic for rules of the game: T stood for “take all,” H stood for “half,” P stood for “put down” and N stood for “nothing.” The game was particularly popular around Christmastime, and whirled its way to other parts of Europe.

When teetotum arrived in Germany, the letters on the top, called a torrel or trundel, were changed to reflect the local language: G stood for gantz (all), H for halb (half), N for nicht (nothing) and S for stell ein (put in).

Germany also appears to be where Jewish children caught wind of the game and – like the Christmas-inspired gift-giving that has been incorporated into Hanukkah festivities – adopted it, transforming it into a holiday pastime.

Yiddish-speaking Jews changed the name of the top and the game to dreidel, from the German word drehen, meaning “to spin.” They further modified the top, replacing the letters with their Hebrew counterparts. The letters’ value and meaning stayed the same, but G became gimel (all), H became hey (half), N became nun (nothing), and S became shin (put in).

Then, although it’s unclear exactly when, the Hebrew letters took on additional Hanukkah-related significance, by denoting the first letter of each word in the phrase Nes gadol haya sham – “a great miracle happened there.” (In Israel, the dreidel is called a sevivon, and the letter shin is replaced with P or pey, which stands for “po,” or here.) This is a reference to the Maccabees’ victory over the Seleucid, or Syrian-Greek, army in 165 BCE and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s where, according to the Hanukkah story, the eternal light miraculously burned for eight days using a one-day supply of oil.

Turning events on their head

Over time, the dreidel and its letters acquired other symbolic meanings and interpretations. The top “recalls the ‘turnover’ of events when Judah the Maccabee’s few forces vanquished and toppled the many in Antiochus’ army,” writes Philip Goodman in “The Hanukkah Anthology.” He continues, “The natural sequence of events was overturned: the strong were spun into the hands of the weak.”

Others calculated the numerical equivalence (or gematria) of the four Hebrew letters on the dreidel, figuring out that they add up to 358 – the same numerical equivalent of mashiah, or messiah, in Hebrew. “Since the letters of the dreidel are equal in numbers to the letters in mashiah, many believed that the Messiah of the House of Judah would be the appointed one, to show the way for further miracles for Israel,” writes Goodman.

The four letters are also numerically equivalent to nahash, the Hebrew word for serpent or evil spirit, notes Goodman, who writes, “The dreidel is spun to topple evil and bring forth the messianic era establishing God’s kingdom. The Hebrew phrase ‘God is king, God rules and shall rule’ is also equivalent to 358.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, author of the Hasidic work “Bnei Yissachar,” also had an elaborate take on the dreidel’s four letters, saying they represent the four ancient kingdoms that tried to eradicate the Jews: N for Nebuchadnezzar (Babylon), G for Gog (Greece), H for Haman (Persia) and S for Seir (Rome). Still another spiritual interpretation of the letters says they refer to components of the human body: N for nefesh (soul), g for guf (body) and S for sekhel (mind) add up to H for hakol, all of an individual’s characteristics.

While some have focused on the symbolic importance of the dreidel, others have, not surprisingly, been drawn to the game’s competitive element – and winning. Eric Pavony put a fresh twist on the game in 2007, when he invented Major League Dreidel (he’s the sport’s “Knishioner”). The event’s motto is “No gelt, no glory!” and its championships are held in different bars in trendy New York City neighborhoods. Pavony has said that old-school dreidel is “a children’s gambling game, and it’s pretty boring.” So he eschewed the traditional rules, where the letters – and luck – determine who wins, and decided to have players aim to spin their dreidels the longest on different surfaces.

And, this year, MIT’s Hillel is hosting two new competitions because they think traditional dreidel is pretty boring, too. One is called Dreidel Hero, where participants “design and create a dreidel game that uses [a] dreidel as the primary selection device (like dice or cards).” The winner gets to meet Eran Egozy, who developed Guitar Hero. The winning design of the second contest – for best 3D-printed dreidel – may get printed and distributed at MIT’s Test Tube Menorah event, an annual lighting ceremony (yes, featuring a menorah crafted from test tubes) dating back to the 1970s. With all these fresh takes on the humble toy, the dreidel may yet be at the top of its game.

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