The Dreidel Game

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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.[1] 

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.[2] 

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.”[3] 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”.[4] Some sources claim that the original custom was to use wooden or silver dreidels. 


[1] Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun 19:4; Divrei Yatziv, OC 2:283.

[2] Nitei Gavriel, Hilchot Chanuka 51:3.

[3] Most Israeli dreidels replace the “shin” with a “peh”, which represents the word “po”, meaning “a great miracle happened here“.

[4] Bnei Yissaschar 2:25, cited in Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 670:5.

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot. www.rabbienkin.com

20 comments

  1. You quote a legend without even examining it critically?

  2. Another reason given by the poskim that permits dreidel games is that the players are usually family members and are all “somech” on the head of the household for sustenance so the money they are gambling is not really their money in the first place. Even in cases where the game is not just immediate family, since the participants are friends, they are mochel any lost money.

    Personally, I find it disturbing that we are promoting gambling. When I was in yeshiva, a friend of mine became a gambling addict. It all started with dreidel. High stakes dreidel games were taking place in the dorm and bochurim were losing hundreds of dollars. ALL BY PLAYING DREIDEL.

  3. “It is believed”

    People can believe what they want. It is *known* that the dreidel has non-Jewish origins. The letters (as in Yiddish) indicate amounts in the game.

  4. “It is believed that playing dreidel likely began in response to the evil Greek decree which completely banned all Torah study.”

    No one who has any sense of history believes this.

  5. 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.
    ==========================================

    a form of the famous “it must be ok, everyone does it” midah shehatorah nidreshet bo?
    KT

  6. “It is believed that playing dreidel likely began in response to the evil Greek decree which completely banned all Torah study. ”
    “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.”

    wow – the yiddin spoke yiddish in bayit sheinii. is this your version of purim torah during chanukah?

  7. Hi, I have a question: Has Rav Elyashiv been informed yet of his daughter’s petirah? Thanks.

  8. None of the haredi newspapers have mentioned that he sat shiva, which means that he must not have been informed. Does he ever ask to speak to her? Does he really know what is going on around him?

  9. “Question on December 27, 2011 at 12:51 pm
    Hi, I have a question: Has Rav Elyashiv been informed yet of his daughter’s petirah? Thanks.

    Anon. on December 27, 2011 at 1:00 pm
    None of the haredi newspapers have mentioned that he sat shiva, which means that he must not have been informed. Does he ever ask to speak to her? Does he really know what is going on around him?”

    This type of information of knowledge of sick people is often peddled wrong. An MO example=when the Rav lost his brother many people from outside of the Boston area went to be menachem avel him. One person who was reasonably close to the Ravs family went and while being menachem avel gets told that the Ravs wife-who was in a hospital at the time knew of course that the person would be menachem avel- wished to see that person. A story which is completely unimportant until one remembers the film on the Rav when to the best of my recollection someone stated that the Rav shielded his wife from knowledge of Dr Samuel Soloveitchiks ptirah. Obviously, my story which I’ve known since just after Purim 1967 has a different truth than someone elses story. It is not an important story but the lesson of not listening every baba meisah stated about gdolim even the Rav-people can talk authoritatively because usually no one to contradict stroy. If such can be said about the Rav ZT”L -how much more so about the Charedi world.
    Of course, to believe the story in the film one would have to believe that the Rav would be misleading his wife and of course what was the Rav not doing visiting his dying wife in the hospital.
    Thus, my story is not necessary to disbelieve that urban legend about the Rav it shouldfall apart by any basic understanding of the relationship between the Rav and his wife.

  10. Mycroft — Huh? So what are you saying? The Rav’s wife did know, or didn’t know, and who was misleading whom?

  11. Good one Ruvie….

    Ari Enkin

  12. “Even in cases where the game is not just immediate family, since the participants are friends, they are mochel any lost money”

    Thus one can commit white collar crimes against friends because they would be mochel?

  13. “Question on December 28, 2011 at 12:10 am
    Mycroft — Huh? So what are you saying? The Rav’s wife did know, or didn’t know, and who was misleading whom?”
    The Ravs wife knew-no one was misleading anyone.

  14. What about Kvittlech?

  15. Lawrence Kaplan

    So R. Enkin, instead of your having to be corrected,yet once again, regarding basic history, you should have begun your article more or less as follows: “While playing dreidel most probably has a non-Jewish origin, popular belief links it with the Hanukah story. It is claimed…”

  16. I received the following e-mail from someone who apparently believes that any holiday that we say al hanissim has a mitzvah of PurimTorah.

    “In his blogpost on Dreidel, Rabbi Enkin notes that the gematria of the four letters (nun, gimel, heh, and shin) equals that of “Mashiach”.
    Some archaeologists claim however that the Maccabees used the four letters nun, gimel, heh, and peh, as such dreidels have been found near the yeshiva in Modiin. The gematria of these four letters equals that of “Menahem”. So is the dreidel referring to Mashiach or is it referring to Menahem? Chabad say heinu hach, based on Sanhedrin 98b : “ma shmo (shel mashiach) … v’yesh omrim Menahem ben Hizkiah shmo”.”

  17. “Nevertheless, there have been a number of authorities in the past who opposed playing dreidel unconditionally and anything else that resembled gambling”

    Assuming gambling is assur-why is it that gambling is tolerated-eg I don’t believe an Orthodox organization would let someone who goes to Las VEgas be a lay leader-suspect someone who violates Shabbos openly could not be a President of an Orthodox organization.

  18. Yes Prof. Kaplan you’re right, again.

    (Though I figured it a davar pashut that everyone would insert those words in their head while reading.)

    Ari Enkin

  19. “Personally, I find it disturbing that we are promoting gambling”

    Agreed

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