The Dreidel -- Unmasked!

PlayingDreidel_CBSFamilyPreschoolHanukkahLunch_December2015Hanukkah is over. For a few evenings, we'll gaze longingly at the counters, tables, and ledges where our hanukkiot so recently glowed...and then our attention will shift to family debates about which movie and Chinese restaurant is right for Christmas Day. Today, though, we hope to extend your Hanukkah glow for at least a few more minutes!

Along with hanukkiot, latkes, and sufganiyot, visions of dreidels spin through our heads when we think of Hanukkah. Why the association? Chabad's website explains:

"The dreidel, known in Hebrew as a sevivon, dates back to the time of the Greek-Syrian rule over the Holy Land -- which set off the Maccabean revolt that culminated in the [Hanukkah] miracle. Learning Torah was outlawed by the enemy, a 'crime' punishable by death. The Jewish children resorted to hiding in caves in order to study. If a Greek patrol would approach, the children would pull out their tops and pretend to be playing a game. By playing dreidel during Chanukah we are reminded of the courage of those brave children."

That's a familiar story -- it's what we've been told our whole lives. But it's also a myth, and one created long after the days of the Maccabees.

In fact, the dreidel is a variation on an Irish or English top that spread over all of Europe during the late Roman Empire. Known as a teetotum, each of these four-sided tops was inscribed with letters that denoted the result of a given spin. For example, the German version of the game used N (Nichts, or nothing), G (Ganz, or all), H (Halb, or half), and S (Stell ein, or put in).

Dreidels&Gelt_CBSFamilyPreschoolHanukkahLunch_December2015Across Europe, teetotum was most often played around Christmastime; the reason for this seasonal popularity remain unclear but, just like their neighbors, Ashkenazi Jews played the game at this time. Yet Jews adapted the tops' lettering for Yiddish speakers, replacing German letters with Hebrew ones: Nun (Nit, or nothing), Gimel (Gants, or everything), He (Halb, or half), and Shin (Shtel arayn, or put in).

Over generations, as the dreidel game was introduced to far-flung Jewish communities that didn't speak Yiddish, various explanations for the letters' significance were put forth. One of the most famous explications is that the letters represent the four kingdoms that tried to destroy Israelites/Jews: Nun for Nebuchadnezzar, or Babylon; He for Haman, or Persia; Gimel for Gog, or Greece; and Shin for Seir, or Rome. But the most popular story -- probably because it's the only one that explains why the dreidel game is primarily played in the month of Kislev -- posited that the letters stood for the phrase "Nes gadol haya sham," or "A great miracle happened there." That's the Hanukkah miracle, of course, and the accompanying myth about the clever ruse of brave little Torah scholars caught on, too.

Sometime in the 19th or 20th century (CE), this mythic origin of the dreidel game became the officially sanctioned account. It's a compelling, fun story for children, but the real history of the dreidel is no less remarkable.

Indeed, the most marvelous of Hanukkah miracles is an ongoing one: the ability of the Jewish people to adopt the customs and ideas of their neighbors -- just filtered through a Jewish lens. Consider how many of our "traditional" Jewish practices are variations of customs adopted from the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans. We often toast the fact that those four "evil empires" have fallen while the Jewish people live on -- Am Yisrael Chai! -- but, curiously and counter-intuitively, some facets of those cultures live on in our Jewish traditions.

Culture is a wonderfully complex cholent.

Why Is Gambling Associated With Hanukkah?

DreidelFor American Jews, it’s that time of the year again. Parents of young children are talking about "the December Dilemma,” Jewish a cappella groups are in overdrive, hanukkiot (Hanukkah menorahs) are being pulled out of deep storage, and we’re all drooling in anticipation of latkes, applesauce, and sour cream. Adam Sandler even wrote and performed a fourth version of his beloved “Hanukkah Song." That’s right, friends — Hanukkah 5776 is almost here!

This Sunday evening is the first night of Hanukkah, and a lot of us are planning holiday parties. In preparation, we’re in the market for extra dreidels…because, as Bryan Adams sung, it ain’t a Hanukkah party if the dreidel don’t spin ‘round (did I mishear that lyric?). Yet, although dreidels are considered de rigueur for Hanukkah parties, they typically don’t do a lot of spinning; they’re more often decorative, described by one clever writer as more “party favor than party favorite.”

Even relegated to a decorative role, the dreidel is a staple of Hanukkah. So how did a European gambling game called teetotum become associated with Hanukkah observance in the first place? We know that diaspora syncretism gave us the dreidel and that the rabbis later invented a backstory — the Israelites-played-dreidel-to-fool-the-Greeks-into-thinking-they-weren’t-studying-Torah myth — but why did they link the game with Hanukkah? The answer, it turns out, has to do with rabbinic attitudes about gambling and Hanukkah’s relationship to another minor holiday, Purim.

"C'mon, big money, big money! Papa needs a great miracle to happen here!"

Back in the day (the Mishnah’s day, that is), dice playing, pigeon racing, and other “games” of chance were popular betting activities that the rabbis viewed as inappropriate or unfortunate. So they debated how best to restrict or moderate the degenerate behavior. Different approaches were put forth, but it seems that the rabbis appreciated the need for occasional laxity or release, and the holidays of Hanukkah and Purim seemed like excellent times to look the other way.

Why?

Purim tells the story of the powerless Jews of Shushan defeating their Persian enemies against all odds. Metaphorically, Purim is understood as an overturning of the social order, a day when activities that were forbidden or discouraged the rest of the year were permitted. It’s observed as a carnival with excessive drinking, costumes (including cross-dressing), and, often, lotteries and raffles (gambling!). With the world turned upside down, why not roll the dice? After all, the Jews of Shushan made risky gambits that paid off!

The Hanukkah story isn’t so different, really, as the small-but-oh-so-zealous Maccabean force repels the great army of the Seleucid Greeks and reclaims the Temple. It’s another the deck-was-stacked-against-us tale.

The shared spirit of Hanukkah and Purim presents us with a compelling justification for why gambling is associated with both holidays -- but this is mostly conjecture. There is also an explanation put forth by historical sociologists who insist that the Yiddish version of teetotum, which was especially popular at Christmastime in Germany, was played by a lot of Ashkenazim in December and therefore became attached to Hanukkah by virtue of the Christian and Jewish holidays' proximity to one another. Although this is almost certainly the most accurate account, it doesn’t negate the valuable symbolism of the world-turned-upside-down concept.

So, this year, sure, most of the attendees of your Hanukkah party will be more into playing Exploding Kittens than the dreidel game. And that’s fine…but we encourage you to play both. Buy those dreidels. Spin those dreidels. Bet on those dreidels. Then ask all the players to donate part or all of their winnings as tzedakah — it’s tax-deduction time, anyway!