Why do we play with dreidels in Hanukkah?

(or, the most amusing tale you'll hear this Hanukkah)

December 2019

As a child in Israel we were told that the reason we are playing with Sevivonim in Hanukkah was that during the Maccabees rebellion against the Romans the Jews would hide in caves and study the Torah, against the law, as the Romans forbade any Jewish life. When the Roman soldiers approached the cave the children were sent out to play with the dreidels so the Romans will not suspect.

Well….. That is a very lovely tale, but completely not historically accurate! The real story is much more recent, funny as can be and fascinating to learn!

The Jewish initiative, cleverness and wit never seizes to surprise me. 

Our story goes back to 16th century Germany. German Kids, Jewish and Christian played with the Dreidel as a gaming dice. The top was already known as a game for kids for centuries, and its origin is probably British, some say it was brought there by Roman soldiers, in Ireland and England of the 16th century, it was called Teetotum. The German word was Trendel – meaning spinning around. Each side of the Trendel was inscribed with a letter to denote four Latin words:

  1. Nothing
  2. Half
  3. Everything
  4. Put – In

Yes! This was a gambling game! For money! You spin the Trendel around and according to which side it falls on you win or lose. The Jews adopted the game, and enjoyed it the most around the Hanukkah days as these were days with no school, no learning Torah, and some say that it also relate to the fact that Jews were not allowed to leave the house on Christmas time…  and they use to hang out at evening time playing card games and gambling. Over the years Hebrew letters replaced the Latin ones. To symbolize the Yiddish words:

  1. נ’ – Niescht – Nothing (loose)
  2. ג’ – Gants – All (win)
  3. ה’ – Halb – Half (half win)
  4. ש’ – Shtel arayn –Add one (add one coin)

The years went by and the Hebrew letters received new meaning to tell the story of Hanukkah:

  1. נ’ – נס – miracle
  2. ג’ – גדול – great
  3. ה’ – היה – was
  4. ש’ – שם – there

The gambling bit was dropped… and the dreidels became an innocent kids’ game for Hanukkah.

Only in the 20th century, the Zionist movement changed the last letter ש’ to פ’ – to say here instead of there – as we now have Israel, and the miracle was here.

(Actually the miracle of modern times is Israel itself. ❤❤❤)

The Modern Hebrew word of Sevivon – which is the literal translation to Dreidel –
“spins around”, was only invented after the revival of the Hebrew language in the late 19th century.

So, the Sevivon began its historic friendship with the Jewish Hanukkah as a gambling game! And over time was “koshered” for Hanukkah into an innocent kids’ game that tells the story of the holiday.

How brilliant and witty is that? I Love our tradition, I love the Jewish mind and I love how we make lemons out of lemonade and fun whenever we can!

Chag Sameach! חג שמח!