By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
The dreidel is, of course, the four-sided top which has become almost synonymous with Chanuka. It is believed that playing dreidel likely began in response to the evil Greek decree which completely banned all Torah study. Not surprisingly, this decree was ignored by Torah scholars. When the Greek soldiers were seen approaching the schools and other centers of Torah study to carry out their inspections, the students would quickly hide their books and take out their dreidels in order to fool the soldiers into believing that only games were taking place.
The rules of the dreidel game require each player to contribute a number of coins to a central fund, the proceeds of which are used to pay out the winners. On each of the four sides of the dreidel appears one of the following letters: nun, gimmel, hey, and shin. The letters of the dreidel are said to represent the first letter of a different Yiddish word. The nun stands for the word “nisht”, nothing, gimmel for “gantz”, all, hey for “halb”, half, and shin for “shtel”, pay. After the dreidel ceases to spin and lands on one of its sides the letters serve to instruct the one whose turn it is how to proceed. For example, if the dreidel lands on the letter “hey” the player wins half the money which is currently in the pot, and so on.
Although the dreidel game is essentially a form of gambling, it is generally considered to be a permissible form of gambling due to its simplicity and the insignificant amounts of money that are commonly used. Nevertheless, there have been a number of authorities in the past who opposed playing dreidel unconditionally and anything else that resembled gambling.
In addition to the gaming aspect for which the four letters of the dreidel are utilized, there are a number of other interpretations to the meaning of these letters, as well. The letters are widely believed to be an acronym for the words “nes gadol haya sham”, meaning “a great miracle happened there.” Another explanation offered is that the four letters of the dreidel represent the four spiritual elements that are found in every person: body, soul, intellect, and what is referred to as the “supreme encompassing strength”. It is also noted that the gematria of the four letters equal that of “mashiach”. Some sources claim that the original custom was to use wooden or silver dreidels.
 Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun 19:4; Divrei Yatziv, OC 2:283.
 Nitei Gavriel, Hilchot Chanuka 51:3.
 Most Israeli dreidels replace the “shin” with a “peh”, which represents the word “po”, meaning “a great miracle happened here“.
 Bnei Yissaschar 2:25, cited in Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 670:5.