The Dreidel and Chanukah
According to Rabbi David Golinkin, the dreidel, or sevivon, is the most strongly linked symbol, next to the Chanukah lamp, for Jews at Chanukah. Apparently the dreidel is not an indigenous custom, but one that is modeled after other cultures. In 16th century England, Ireland and in central Europe, there were games called Totem, which also had spinning tops with gambling directions. T is Take All, H is Half, P is Put Down, and N is Nothing. How very ironic that a holiday with a message to hold tenaciously to one's laws and customs has as one of its main symbols one derived through imitation!
But this does not stop our rabbis from attributing other meanings to dreidels, after the fact. Some claim that the letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin stem from the miracle of Chanukah shortly after declaring Nes gadol Haya poh, or in the diaspora, Nes gadol Haya Sham–A great miracle happened here/there. The game of dreidel, it is claimed, was begun for the purpose of concealing Torah study, which Antiochus prohibited, and that the letters equal the numeric equivalent of 358, which is also the value of the word meshiah. Chanukah begins a time of messianic redemption.
Finally, some claim the letters represent the kingdoms that Jews have “spun circles around” and vanquished. Nun, gimmel, hey and shin remind us N, Nebuchadnetzar=Babylon; H, Haman=Persia=Madai; G, Gog=Greece; and S, Seir=Rome.
But the following is the take-away that I like best. The dreidel is a representation of what we mean by the middle Chanukah candle-lighting blessing. Praise and bless God, who has given us miracles in those days and in this time. “This time” refers not to our era, but rather “human time” real time. the whole story of Chanukah is that the miracle is driven from below by the Maccabees in real time. The centripedal force of the spin is driven not by the little handle above, but rather the body below. Similarly, it was the assumption of actions below that drove the victory and the success over the Greeks. The weighty actions and decisions we make in our life, in our time, are what allows miracles to happen. “Actions below lead to stirring above,” say our sages. That is what the letters of the body of the dreidel are telling us.
May all of us enjoy Chanukah and our dreidels. And may they inspire us to weighty actions and decisions that drive our reality. And let us say, Amen.