November 26, 2010
Different spins on an ancient toy
A dreidel is more than a game – it also symbolizes bravery, spirituality, miracles, strength.
“Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay, and when it’s dry and ready, oh dreidel I shall play.” This children’s song has been sung for generations on Chanukah. A dreidel (Yiddish for spinning top; drey is Yiddish for spin) is a unique toy. It is still called by its original name all these centuries later and is enjoyed by children (and adults) of all ages the world over during Chanukah. It is also perhaps the oldest toy in history, but it is not only functional – it is wrought with symbolism.
In Hebrew, a dreidel is called a sevivon. It dates back to the time of the Greek-Syrian rule over the Holy Land, which set off the Maccabean revolt that culminated in the Chanukah miracle. Learning Torah was outlawed and was punishable by death. The Jewish children resorted to hiding in caves in order to study their beloved Torah. When Greek soldiers were on patrol and would approach them, the children would pull out their dreidels and pretend to be playing a game instead of learning. By playing dreidel during Chanukah, we are reminded of the courage of these brave children.
Dreidels come in plastic, wood, metal and even crystal and are collector items, too. What is the secret to their appeal? A dreidel is just a simple toy – or is it? Dreidels are not just objects to be admired and collected, they are actually used to play the game of dreidel, which has rules. Players gather around a table and divide up a pile of items for tokens (pennies, candies, peanuts, etc.). Players take turns spinning the dreidel to see how it will fall and then try to win the whole pot based on the turns. A dreidel has four sides and each side has a Hebrew letter, a nun, a gimmel, a hey and a shin. After spinning, the top lands and the letter that is facing up determines what happens next. For nun, meaning nisht (nothing), you don’t do anything. For gimmel, meaning gantz (the whole thing), you get to keep the whole pot and then everyone has to put one item in to make a new pot. For hey (halb, or half) you get half of the pot and for shin (shtel arein), you have to put one in the pot. It boils down to having to give or take. It also gives us something to think about while we’re waiting for our next turn. Are we going to be givers or takers? Give: G-d gives us so much, so we can share with others this Chanukah (money, food, time, etc.). Take: we can take upon ourselves an additional aspect of spirituality (a Torah class, a mitzvah, synagogue attendance, etc.).
The letters on the dreidel spell out the Hebrew phrase, “Nes gadol haya sham,” which translates as, “A great miracle happened there” (meaning in the Holy Land). Israeli dreidels have the letter pey instead of shin to represent the word poh (here).
Aside from being a symbol of courage and a fun game, how does the small, simple dreidel embody the Chanukah message? What’s striking about the dreidel is that its “religious” aspect isn’t apparent upon looking at it. In fact, while it’s spinning, we can’t even make out any letters at all and certainly cannot make words out of the letters even when the dreidel stops. Its message is hidden.
Our lives are like a game of dreidel. In the course of our hectic day-to-day routine, we are often too busy to notice the “letters” – those small and big miracles that accompany us all the time. Taking a first breath upon waking in the morning, stepping onto the floor, being able to get dressed, being able to eat, pray, read the newspaper, drive to work and do all of the activities that we may take for granted in our busyness.
I like to think of the letters of the dreidel as modes of being. We all have our “gimmel” days, when we feel that everything is going great for us. Then there are our “hey” days, when things are going well but could be better. On the “shin” days, we spend time wishing for the hey and gimmel days. The nun days, when all the good things seem like a distant memory, we feel that we may never have another hey or gimmel day again in our whole lives.
Each of these letters though, represents only one face of the dreidel – only a single perspective of the whole. Together, they spell out a sentence – and, every once in a while, we have to give the spinning dreidel a break and reflect on its message, “A great miracle happened there.” This, of course, refers to the miracle of Chanukah that occurred in the Holy Land when the situation seemed beyond hope. The commitment of a few people turned the situation around (just like a dreidel) and brought about the miracle through G-d’s salvation.
The Maccabees didn’t dwell on the fact that they were being oppressed and persecuted by an enemy larger and stronger than they were. They focused on the gimmel that was on the other side of the shin. They used this attitude to act to create a vehicle for a divine miracle.
It’s important to remember that whatever letter we seem to land on, it’s all part of one dreidel and even that dreidel has the message that miracles can and do happen every day. We can transform the dark situations of our lives into the bright lights of the Chanukah candles to help us battle our own inner enemies throughout the coming year. We only have to draw on the strength of the Maccabees, those brave children and the letters of the dreidel. When they fall, they get up, with a little help, and spin ecstatically over and over again.
Dreidels are not demanding and do not require any maintenance at all. They are silent but strong. They are thrilled to be taken out every year for Chanukah from the cupboard to be a plaything for a child or an adult, to see the sheer delight on the faces of generations of Jewish people who have survived so much persecution, playing freely with them. They don’t mind if we touch them with our oily or sticky fingers, spin them endlessly, let them fall onto the floor repeatedly in our enthusiasm, smash them down mercilessly when we lose, throw them up in the air when we win, or spin them upside down to show off for our friends and family. They are so happy to be used for the eight-day festival. A dreidel is not a simple toy made of molded plastic, wood or metal. It is imbued with the blood of martyrs, the tears of the pious and the endurance of the faithful. No matter what material forms it, a dreidel is made of pretty tough stuff, just like us.
Enjoy playing dreidel this Chanukah. Chag samayach!
Esther Tauby is a local educator, writer and counselor.