Why do we play with dreidels on Hanukkah?

Why do we play with this little top during the holiday? It goes back to the second century, when the Greek empire ruled over Israel.
Posted at 12:53 PM, Dec 07, 2023

Jewish people around the world celebrate Hanukkah by singing songs, lighting candles, eating latkes and playing dreidel.

But why do we play with this little top during the holiday? It goes back to the second century when the Greek empire ruled over Israel.

"The Jews were not allowed to practice Judaism, they weren't allowed to study Torah, they weren't allowed to light candles, they weren't allowed to do anything because the Greeks wanted everybody hellenized," said Rabbi Megan Goldmarche, executive director of Tribe 12. "So Jews would be sitting around and at least a story that I was always told is maybe sitting around, you know, reading Jewish books, studying Torah, and then suddenly, like, the Greeks would come and knock on the door. And to pretend they were doing something else, they would quickly shove the books to the side and grab a dreidel. Like that was like the game they played to like cover up that they were studying Torah."

Back then it was a distraction device. Today it's a top with four sides and a Hebrew letter on each. The letters are nun (נ), gimel (ג), hey (ה), and shin (ש). And it stands for "nes gadol ha-ya sham" or "a great miracle happened there."

"We celebrate two possible miracles during Hanukkah. The one miracle that seems potentially more historically accurate is that a small army of Israelites defeated a large army of Greeks. Or potentially the miracle that the oil that was found when the temple was rededicated after that battle should have only lasted for one day. It lasted for eight days," Goldmarche said.

Today children play dreidel and can wager chocolate gelt or other small items. Each letter corresponds with an outcome. If you get nun you get nothing — if you get hey you take half the pot. A shin means you put a piece into the pot. And if you land on gimel — you get the whole pot.