Why Do Jews Play Dreidel on Hanukkah?

7 questions and answers about these spinning tops.

A dreidel (sevivon in Hebrew) is a spinning top, with four sides, each side featuring  a different Hebrew letter: nun (נ), gimmel (ג), hay (ה) and either shin (שׁ) or peh (פּ).

Why do Jews play dreidel?

There are a number of traditional explanations for why Jews play dreidel on Hanukkah.

The custom is often explained with 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.

In A Different Light: The Hanukkah Book of Celebration, Rabbi David Golinkin writes that a number of rabbis also developed elaborate numerological (Gematria) explanations for the dreidel game, using the numerical equivalents of the letters on it. For example, the sum of the numerical values of nun, gimmel, hey and shin is 358, which is also the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters spelling Moshiach. the Hebrew word for Messiah.

Others, Golinkin noted, have argued that the letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin are supposed to represent the four kingdoms that tried to destroy the Jews in ancient times: N = Nebuchadnezzar (Babylon); H = Haman (Persia); G = Gog (Greece) and S = Seir (Rome).

In reality, according to Golinkin, the dreidel is not a Jewish invention, but is instead an adaptation of a centuries-old game played in many cultures.

Learn more about the dreidel’s history here. 

What is the significance of the Hebrew markings on the dreidel?

The letters on the dreidel are the first letters in a Hebrew phrase, Nes (נס) gadol (גדול) haya (היה) sham (שׁם), which means “a great miracle happened there” (“there” being the land of Israel). In Israel, the letter pay, for the Hebrew word po (פּה) meaning “here,” replaces the letter shin to spell out “a great miracle happened here.”

How do you play dreidel?

Check out the video below or read this article.

I played dreidel and found it really boring. Are there any ways to liven it up?

A number of enterprising people have come up with alternatives and variations over the years. Here are five suggestions:

  1. In 2009, Jennie Rivlin Roberts and her husband Webb Roberts developed a game called “No Limit Texas Dreidel,” which mashes up dreidel with “Texas Hold ‘Em” poker.
  2. You can find several dreidel variations and dreidel-game ideas here.
  3. After a lengthy explanation of traditional dreidel’s many failings, this 2010 Slate article introduces a new version it calls “Speed Dreidel.”
  4. If you are hosting an adults-only dreidel game, you may want to try our partner site Alma’s Official Dreidel Drinking Game.
  5. Have a a dreidel-spinning competition, to see whose dreidel can spin the longest.

Are dreidels really made of clay?

Contrary to the popular children’s song, most dreidels on the market today are made of plastic, wood or metal.

What’s the world record for number of dreidels spun simultaneously in one place?

We’re glad you asked. As of July 2017 (yes, seems like an odd time of year for a dreidel competition, but…), 820 dreidels spun simultaneously for 10 seconds at the Boy Scout Jamboree in Glen Jean, West Virginia.

Where can I buy a dreidel?

You can buy a dreidel at any Judaica store in the weeks leading up to Hanukkah or choose from a wide variety of sizes and price points online. Or you can try to purchase the world’s most valuable dreidel (according to the Guinness Book of World Records), a $14,000 diamond-and-gemstone dreidel, from Chabad of South Palm Beach.

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.

Discover More

9 Things You Didn’t Know About Hanukkah

Lesser-known facts about the Festival of Lights.

How to Light the Hanukkah Menorah

The traditional blessings and procedures for lighting the Hanukkah candles.

Why Do We Eat Latkes on Hanukkah?

These delicious pancakes celebrate the miracle of the oil — but potatoes are a relatively newfangled tradition.