For 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.
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!