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History of the Dreidel

Written by Zev on November 24, 2008 – 12:00 pm -

A dreidel is a toy top used to play games of chance. It is a enjoyed especially by children as part of the festivities for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The name comes from the Yiddish verb dreyden meaning ‘to turn’. In Hebrew, the toy is known as a ‘Sevivon’.

The dreidel has four sides, each marked with the hebrew letters Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin. These are the first letters of the Hebrew sentence ‘Nes Gadol Haya Sham’ meaning ‘A Great Miracle Happened There’, referring to the story of Hanukkah.

The dreidel game is interesting in that it appears to be one of the few examples of religiously sanctioned gambling, which is normally frowned upon in Judeo-Christian traditions.

It can be played with real money, but this is often substituted with gold-wrapped chocolate coins [gelt], candy or plastic pieces.

The game requires four players. Each player spins the top in turn. Each Hebrew letter is associated with a specific outcome.

Nun:     Nothing (lose a turn)
Gimel:  Take everything in the prize pool
Hay:     Take half of the prize pool
Shin:    Contribute one piece to the prize pool

The game normally goes for a number of rounds to ensure that everyone has a chance to win a prize.

There is no consensus about the origin of the dreidel game. The least fascinating explanation is that it originated in the last several hundred years in Europe, having evolved from existing childrens games like Teetotum.

A deeper story states that it originated in ancient times, in places where Jews were forbidden from practising their religion. The Jewish people used the dreidel game as a decoy to hide the fact that they were secretly studying the Torah. When inspectors used to come to enforce the ban, Jewish students would quickly hide their books and pull out dreidels and pretend to have been playing games.

The dreidel has been popularised in recent years due to its appearance on TV shows like the Simpsons and South Park. The song “I have a Little Dreidel” has also become popular in the USA and is often sung together with Christmas carols.

Here is a detailed instructional video on Hanukkah Dreidel gameplay:

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