Hanukkah galery

Dreidl – Spinning Top

It appears that the dreidl comes originally from ancient India. The dreidl is a development of a game of luck with a swastika (the shape known today as the Nazi symbol), that represents the sun’s cycle. The dreidl is four-sided, and on each side is written (chiseled, engraved or painted) a letter. The letters represent lots that come up during the game.


In Yiddish, the letters are

  • Nun = Nisht = No (no-win and no-lose)
  • Gimmel = Gut = Good (win)
  • Heh = Helb = Half (a half-win)
  • Shin = Shlecht = Bad (lose)


Playing with a dreidl, also prevalent in Europe (the word “dreidl” is Yiddish), was adopted by the Jews who bound it with the traditions of Hanukkah and the miracles. They replaced the known Hebrew initials N, G, H, Sh to stand for “Nes” (miracle) “Gadol” (great) “Haya” (was) “Sham” (there). In Israel, the letter “Shin” is replaced with “Peh” representing the word “po” – “here.” With time, there developed a custom to give the children “Hanukkah money” – “Hanukkah gelt.”  These coins were used for gambling in the dreidl game, similar to the gambling games with nuts on Pesach.


Hanukkah Dreidl


The traditional dreidl has the shape of a cube with a point on the bottom, and on top there is a short stick. On the four sides of the cube between the stick and the point are letters. The origin of the custom to play with a dreidl on Hanukkah comes from a children’s game of luck in Germany, of non-Jews and Jews alike, hundreds of years ago, when a spinning top was used as a dice. The letters on the sides of the spinning top marked with the initials winning (Gut), missing a turn (Nicht) losing (Shlecht) or half-half (Helb) of the total betting. The Latin letters were N, G, H, S, and in Yiddish, נ,ג,ה,ש . Another explanation given to the letters נגה”ש is their numerical value (gematria); totally 368, the same as the numerical value of the letters משיח = Mashiah. Hassidic masters gave additional interpretations, for example, Rebbe Nachman of Breslav explained the initials as hints of parts of the world, and Rebbe Zvi Elimelech of Dinow added further explanations.


Another interpretation on the source of the custom is that playing with a spinning top was introduced to the children in Jewish communities, in order that their minds should not wander from the miracles even when they play.


A further distancing from the source of the game (gambling) is expressed in the fact that modern tops have no sides or letters at all, and are not suitable for gambling. The spinning top became a symbol, and in certain places there is a custom to fill hollow tops with candy as “Hanukkah money.”


Spinning tops which are not specifically for Hanukkah are mostly shaped as discs with cylindrical symmetry, so that the top will spin better and longer. Using a stick, you can turn the top on its point and it “dances” on the surface around itself.


There are also tops called “Porparra” in the slang of Israeli children; in Japanese: 独楽, and in English, “Whipping Top” or “Trompo”), and they spin by a thread wound around them and pulling and releasing it fast. For this, a screw is embedded on the bottom of the spinning top.

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