click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Hanukkah Dreidel Secrets

Hanukkah Dreidel Secrets

What the Hanukkah dreidel was 'back then' and how we can learn from it today.


In Judaism, even something as simple as “spin-the-top is really not as simple as it appears.

During the time of the Maccabees, Jews were imprisoned for the "crime" of studying Torah. While in jail, these Jews would gather together to play dreidel. Under the guise of idling away their time, they’d engage in Torah discussions and thus defy the enemies of Judaism.

Every dreidel has four sides with one Hebrew letter on each side. Each of these letters begins a word.  The four letters are:

• Nun – the first letter of the word nes, which means "miracle"
• Gimmel – the first letter of gadol, which means "great"
• Hey – the first letter of haya, which means "was" and
• Shin – the first letter of sham, which means "there"

When taken together, these letters proclaim "A great miracle happened there."

Until today, the “game of dreidel” reminds us of our eternal defiance of anyone who tries to stand between a Jew and the Torah.

Spinning Through History

Someone once said: Life is like a top. You spin around a lot, and then you fall over.”

To some, life is a game, a joke, an arbitrary abyss. Not to the Jewish people. We’ve been "spinning" through history for 3,000 years. To some, history may seem like an arbitrary string of events whose frequent tragedies seem to proclaim life's futility. But the message of the dreidel is just the opposite.

In mystical Kabbalah teachings, there is another dimension to the dreidel. The four letters represent four different historical empires – Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman – that tried to destroy the Jewish people. (Today we are victims of the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple and sent us into the current exile.)

Are we just spinning haphazardly from one tragedy to another, or is there some rhyme and reason to all that has happened in our history?

It is at times of tragedy that the dreidel presents its message: If we believe there is ultimate meaning to the Jewish people, if we know that despite the dizzying blur of events in our history there is some purpose to it all, and if we are prepared to fight to remain Jews regardless of what history throws at us, then who knows – we might just see a miracle and be reassured that there is a hidden hand guiding the destiny of the Jewish people.

Modern Miracle

In 1947, for the first time since the Maccabees defeated the Greeks, the Jewish people were on the verge of reclaiming sovereignty in their homeland. Around the world, many were skeptical if the birth of this new state would happen at all. Others were convinced that if it was born, it would soon go down in defeat to the vastly larger and far better equipped Arab armies.

For political reasons the Jews of Palestine had built up an image of strength. So persuasive was their propaganda, even the Arabs had been fooled. But reality was pathetically different:

The fledgling Jewish army had weapons for less than a quarter of its men. Its total arsenal consisted of a few thousand rifles, less than a thousand machine guns, and sufficient ammunition for only three days fighting. The Jews had no heavy armaments of any kind – no heavy machine guns, no artillery, no anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns, no real armored cars. And nothing whatsoever in the way of an Air Force or Navy. Nothing.

Then, on December 5, 1947, things got worse. The United States government announced a total embargo on arms sales to the Middle East. By that time, the Arabs had already purchased tens of millions of dollars worth of U.S. arms surplus. And the Jews were left with their paltry supplies.

But you know the rest of the story.

“In Israel, in order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles.”
– David Ben Gurion, First Prime Minister of Israel

How to Play the Dreidel Game

On Chanukah, everyone loves spinning the dreidel. We have contests to see who can spin it the longest. Or who can get the most dreidels spinning simultaneously.

And of course, there's the famous dreidel game played for Chanukah "gelt:"

• Nun – no one wins
• Gimmel – spinner takes the pot
• Hey – spinner get half the pot
• Shin – spinner matches the pot


Adapted from "Chanukah – Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul"

October 29, 2002

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 13

(12) Burton Dale, December 1, 2010 7:11 PM

Squaring the circle

There is yet another secret of the dreidel. The four corners of the dreidel in spinning form a circle in a relationship to a square that has puzzled man since the time of the Greeks. The answer did not come until a clever Jewish fellow named Einstein added a most critical element. You cannot have space without motion and showed the world that space is curved. All eternity, called time, is derived from that simple relationship. G-d knows, and it is so simple man still has problems understanding the concept.

ben, December 2, 2013 3:14 AM

help understanding

Could you elaborate? I am intrigued and would love to hear more of this perspective?

(11) sally, February 12, 2010 5:06 PM

thank you

i had to do a project on hanukkah and this site really helped me. There is almost everthing here, i loved it so much

(10) Anne, November 28, 2007 12:19 AM

Best Site I've Found

I work with a Jewish woman with mental retardation. She is very dear to me, and doesn't have much family here, so I'm interested in helping her celebrate all the Jewish traditions... but would like to do so in the proper way. This site has been so helpful in achieving that goal! Thank you.

(9) Anonymous, November 30, 2006 7:31 PM

this is a very informative article

i have learned so much from this website about jewish history, holidays and spirituality. I look foward to recieving this every week and it is great to read and learn something new. It is a great pleasure recieving this on a weekly basis.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment