What Is A Dreidel?

The iconic Hanukkah game.

A dreidel is a spinning top, with four sides, each marked with a different Hebrew letter (nun, gimel, hay and shin). The custom of playing dreidel on Hanukkah is based on a legend that, during the time of the Maccabees, when Jewish children were forbidden from studying Torah, they would defy the decree and study anyway. When a Greek official would come close they would put away their books and take out spinning tops, claiming they were just playing games.

The letters on the dreidel are the first letters in a Hebrew phrase that means “A Great Miracle Happened There” (“There” being the land of Israel). In Israel, the letter peh (for the Hebrew word “po,” meaning “here”) replaces the letter shin to spell out “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”

For those who don’t read Hebrew, some dreidels also feature a transliteration of each letter. If yours doesn’t, use the photo below as a cheat sheet:

dreidel sides letters

To play dreidel, each player begins with an equal number of games pieces, such as coins, candies, nuts etc. At the beginning of each round, every player puts one game piece into the center “pot.” Players then take turns spinning the dreidel. When the top lands on nun, the player gets nothing; on gimel, the player gets the entire contents of the pot; hey, the player gets half of the pot; and shin, the player must put a piece (or coin) into the pot.

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