Image of jewish holiday Hanukkah with wooden dreidels

What Do the Letters On the Dreidel Stand For?

The four-sided top has slightly different markings depending on where in the world it was made.

Dreidel is a classic Hanukkah game played with a four-sided spinning top. Players place a game piece into the pot at the beginning of each round and then take turns spinning the dreidel. Depending on which side it lands on, players either take or put pieces into the pot. 

But what do the letters stand for?

Well, that depends where you live. 

In most of the world, dreidels have four Hebrew letters — nun, gimmel, hay, and shin — that stand for the phrase: Nes gadol haya sham (“a great miracle happened there”). That refers, of course, to the miracle of the holiday. Long ago, the Syrian Greeks, ruled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, tried to stamp out Jewish culture. They forbade certain Jewish practices — like circumcision and studying Torah — and they set up a statue to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. A brave band of Jewish fighters, who called themselvs the Maccabees, spent three years waging guerrilla warfare against their much more powerful enemy. Miraculously, they won. Also a miracle: When they returned to Jerusalem and reclaimed the Temple, they were able to find only one small jar of oil with which to light the Temple’s large golden menorah. Such oil took eight days to produce. Luckily, this one tiny jug managed to burn for a full eight days until another more oil could be produced. The letters of the dreidel recall that long ago and far away miracle: nes gadol haya sham — a great miracle happened there.

In Israel, of course, where the Hanukkah miracle actually occurred, the dreidels are slightly little different, with the four letters — nun, gimmel, hay and pay — corresponding to the phrase nes gadol haya poh, “a great miracle happened here.”

Check out this map that shows where the Hanukkah story happened.

Want to learn how to play dreidel? This video has you covered:

Click here to learn how to play an adult version of dreidel from Hey Alma.

Explore Hanukkah’s history, global traditions, food and more with My Jewish Learning’s “All About Hanukkah” email series. Sign up to take a journey through Hanukkah and go deeper into the Festival of Lights.

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