By Rabbi Mark Melamut
Not just a game for kids, dreidel is all about letting go, giving life a spin and dealing with what we get. Don’t we always want it all, get disappointed if we get none, sometimes get half and generally need to give something back. Like life, we can’t sit back like spectators. Our task is to give it a spin and to keep on trying. That is the essence of the Hanukkah spirit!
Where did the dreidel come from anyway? A legend is told that the Jewish people played dreidel in order to fool the Greeks if they were caught studying Torah, which like many other Jewish practices, had been outlawed. As it turns out, it seems that dreidel originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah. It has been played by various people in various languages for many centuries. Our Eastern European game is directly based on the German equivalent: N=Nichts=Nothing. G=Ganz=all. H=Halb=half. S=Stell ein=put in. In German, the spinning top was called a “torrel” or “trundl” and in Yiddish it was called a “dreidel, a fargl, a varfl, “something thrown.” “Thus the dreidel represents an irony of Jewish history. In order to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidel game which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation!” (David Golinkin)
Even after learning this, it is still nice to think of the traditional explanation: Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, A Great Miracle Happened There. Whether it was an ancient game to distract the Greeks, a borrowed game from our neighbors or a game that somehow reminds of us of the miracles of Hanukkah, it has become integral to our holiday. It may not be made out of clay anymore. We play dreidel because it is fun and traditional. We also play it to symbolize that as life presents us with chances, we are meant to do the best that we can and simply give it a spin! So, go ahead, grab some gelt and a dreidel and give it a spin. What do you have to lose?
Hag Urim Sameach and Happy Hanukkah,