The dreidel, a small, top-like toy with Hebrew letters on all four sides, is an important part of Hanukkah celebrations. As Jewish families gather to light the candles of the menorah, share potato latkes and remember when the Macabees rescued the temple and rededicated it, the game that has winners enjoying gelt, chocolate coins, is usually a part of the festivities. But what is the dreidel’s significance to the Jewish culture and the celebration of Hanukkah?
Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin), which together form the acronym for “נס גדול היה שם” (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “a great miracle happened there”). These letters also form a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: Nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht (“nothing”), Hei stands for halb (“half”), Gimel for gants (“all”), and Shin for shtel ayn (“put in”). In Israel, the fourth side of most dreidels is inscribed with the letter פ (Pei), rendering the acronym, נס גדול היה פה, Nes Gadol Hayah Poh—”A great miracle happened here” referring to the miracle occurring in the land of Israel.
Some believe the four sides of the dreidel also represent the four exiles the nation of Israel endured historically. Those exiles occurred in the kingdoms of Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. Although the playing of dreidal is not a mitzvah (requirement or mandate) of Hanukkah celebrations, there is a long history of the game associated with the holiday.
For those not accustomed to the observance of Hanukkah and the dreidal, the following children’s books about dreidels and the annual Festival of Lights are a great place to start. Children will enjoy learning about the customs of another culture and perhaps a greater appreciation for those family and friends who take part in Hanukkah celebrations will be gained.
“Jeremy’s Dreidel” by Ellie Gellman and Maria Mola (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2012) Jeremy and his friends are all making dreidels out of clay, but why does Jeremy’s look different than the rest? Is he putting a secret code on the sides or is there another reason?
“Runaway Dreidel!” by Lesléa Newman and Kyrsten Brooker (Henry Holt and Co., 2002) On the first night of Hanukkah, a boy receives the gift of a shiny new dreidel. But, once he gives it its first spin, it just won’t stop.
“Elmo’s Little Dreidel” by Naomi Kleinberg and Christopher Moroney (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2011) This board book is just right for the youngest members of the family. Elmo goes to his friends’ house to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, but has no idea what a dreidel is. He soon learns by watching Gil and Susie; soon he is joining in the fun.
“I Have A Little Dreidel” by Maxie Baum (Cartwheel Books, 2006) The classic Hanukkah song is treated to folk-art illustrations and a few added verses in this tale of one child’s special dreidel.
“Bubbie and Zadie Come to My House: A Story for Hanukkah” by Daniel Halevi Bloom and Alex Meilichson (Square One Publishers, Inc, 2006) Legend says that on the first night of Hanukkah Bubbie and Zadie visit the homes of Jewish children and play dreidel with them. As they sing and tell stories, they also share words of wisdom.
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