Hanukkah this year will be celebrated from December 18 to December 26. Jewish children all over the world will be playing a gambling game with a traditional spinning top known as a dreidel. Many of them will also be told stories about the origin and meaning of the dreidel, stories which claim that the dreidel once had a subversive purpose or that it was created to commemorate a great miracle. These stories are themselves interesting folklore. Since the dreidel is a traditional toy used to play a traditional game, such stories about the dreidel and game can be called metafolklore–that is, folklore about folklore. In this blog, we’ll take a look at some of these stories about the origin of the dreidel and examine the toy’s real history.
To give a little background, Hanukkah commemorates a rebellion of Jews in the Seleucid Empire, an ancient Greek kingdom in the Middle East which included Jerusalem. Between 167 and 160 BCE, Jews were in open revolt against Greeks. Meanwhile, within the Jewish community, stricter Jews attempted to curb cultural assimilation, sometimes by killing Hellenized Jews who bowed before statues of Greek gods or otherwise forsook Jewish practices. The revolt led to semi-independent state known as the Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom, established by the wars of 167-160 BCE, and consolidated by about 140 BCE. It lasted until 37 BCE, when the Romans, having already defeated the remaining Seleucid rulers, annexed Judea.
The particular moment of this history commemorated by Hanukkah is the victory of the army of Judah Maccabee and the re-consecration of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which probably occurred in 164 BCE. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), there was only sufficient pure oil to burn the lamps for one night, but the consecration rites required eight. A miracle occurred and the small cruse of oil lasted eight times as long as expected. The following year, the priests decreed the festival we now call Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday on which Jews burn lamps or candles, sing psalms, and rejoice.
Rejoicing, of course, takes many forms. Eating fried foods like potato pancakes and donuts is one form of rejoicing, and also recalls the sacred olive oil of the scripture. Nowadays Jews also decorate their homes, give gifts, and sing songs.
Rejoicing is also where the dreidel, or top, comes in. It’s a gambling game where, after you ante up, the letter that comes up when you spin the top tells you what to do: take the whole pot, take half the pot, do nothing, or ante up again. It’s a fun way for kids to spend a few hours winning or losing chocolate coins.
Or is it? When I was a child, I was told that the dreidel game had a deeper meaning. It was really just a cover for subversive study, they told me. When the Seleucid authorities outlawed studying the Torah, Jews continued their practice of Bible discussion. They brought along a dreidel, so that if a Greek saw a group of Jews around a table, it would look like an innocent gambling game rather than illegal Bible study. This, we were told, was the origin of the connection between dreidels and Hanukkah.
That wasn’t the only story Jewish kids heard back in my youth. We were told, for example, that the letters on each face of the dreidel, Nun-Gimel-Hay-Shin, were placed there as an abbreviation of the sentence “nes gadol haya sham,” meaning “a great miracle happened there.” This referred to the miracle of the oil burning eight times longer than expected. It seemed plausible–but it never occurred to me that if the designer of the dreidel already knew about the miracle, the dreidel couldn’t have been in use before it happened, when the Jews were still being oppressed by the Seleucid rulers!
These origin stories for the dreidel are fairly common features of Jewish education, passed on to kids by their rabbis or religious school teachers. A couple of examples of the first story from newspapers will show some of the variations in the tale. The following version appeared in The Southern Jewish Weekly in 1947:
During various Jewish persecutions during the Middle Ages the tyrants always tried to stop the Jews from studying the Torah. In those days Jewish scholarship was carried on by “mouth to mouth” transmission and not through writing. The Talmud, especially, was studied only orally, in groups. A decree was therefore issued prohibiting any assemblage for the purpose of studying the Torah, under penalty of death. Not discouraged by this malicious decree, the Rabbis sought to camouflage their studies by giving them the outward appearance of play. This was achieved by spinning the “top of chance” which was a common pastime.
There being no evident signs of writing, the observer would conclude only that the group was engaged in play and not in actual study. To commemorate this trick, it is still customary to spin “Chanukah tops.” It has thus remained a custom to play “games of chance” on Chanukah, although they are prohibited on all other occasions.
The most popular explanation of the dreidel is the historical one. According to this reasoning the dreidel commemorates the clever ruse used by the students of the Maccabean era to avoid government officials who sought to prevent them from studying. The tyrannical rule of that time outlawed the study gatherings of the Jewish people. As always, the Jews persisted in the study of the Torah as their lifeline to the spirit of G-d. The groups that assembled in those days conducted the sessions orally. The problem was to avoid evident signs of study. This was easily done by spinning the top on the table of learning. This gave the appearance of play instead of study. Since it was customary to engage in games of chance in those days by playing with tops, this presented an innocent group of young men gambling.
As we can see, there is some variation in the tale. In particular, the first version is set in “the Middle Ages” among “various Jewish persecutions,” but then gets oddly specific with mention of “a decree” being issued making it illegal to study. The second version is set instead in the ancient world, during the very Seleucid persecution that led to the Hasmonean revolt. This means it is more closely connected to the Hanukkah story itself than the first version.
The second version also contains interesting hedging language, suggesting the author may not fully believe it: the claim made is simply that this tale is “the most popular explanation of the dreidel.” This implies, of course, that there are other explanations, and by calling this one “the most popular” rather than “the most likely” or “the most credible,” the writer subtly declines to vouch for the story.
Interestingly, both of the above accounts were written by the same person, Rabbi Samuel J. Fox. This may give us a sense of how the same story changes over time, even when told by a single individual. Perhaps it was altering his story to fit the Hanukkah narrative more neatly by moving it to the Seleucid empire from medieval Europe that made Rabbi Fox realize it wasn’t actually true–or at least BOTH his versions probably weren’t. Maybe that’s what encouraged him to add the hedging words about the story being “the most popular explanation of the dreidel.”
Similar hedging certainly abounds in more recent retellings of the tale. Aish tells the story, but begins with the caveat that it’s “one popular explanation” of the dreidel. Symbols Archive likewise recounts the story as fact, then follows it with the sentence: “However, this story is claimed by some to be just a legend.” Ha’aretz hedges at the beginning AND the end, telling us:
Legend has it that when the ancient Greeks outlawed the study of Torah, Jews would outsmart them by playing with a spinning top – a popular gambling device – while learning Torah orally. That way if the Greeks were out to bust renegade Torah scholars, they would find a group of sinful “gamblers” instead and leave them alone. Not everyone believes that nifty tale, though.
My Jewish Learning recounts the story along with other dreidel lore, then states: “As a matter of fact, all of these elaborate explanations were invented after the fact.” But they head the page with a video, which tells the story and does not deny its truth, preceding it with the hedge “Legend has it….”
Most of the sources above also give the interpretation of the letters on the dreidel as “a great miracle happened there,” with similar caveats that it’s “a common interpretation” rather than an accurate one.
There are other sources, however, more concerned with accuracy than with telling a good story. The Forward gives it to us straight:
Like many things in Jewish history, the story that most of us heard about dreidels as children is entirely ahistorical. There were no dreidels in ancient times, and the tops were not used as a way to conceal Torah study from the Greeks. In fact, the dreidel originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah, or even with Jews, at all.
The Forward goes on to tell the history of the dreidel as it is now generally accepted by historians: Jews borrowed the dreidel from their Christian neighbors, probably in German-speaking Europe, probably in the 18th century. By then, the game was popular throughout Europe, and both the top itself and the gambling game associated with it were known in English as “teetotum.” (The game was sometimes also known as “put and take.”)
The English antiquarian Joseph Strutt (1749-1801) provides useful background in his posthumous treatise Glig-gamena angel-deod, or, The sports and pastimes of the people of England:
When I was a boy the te-totum had only four sides, each of them marked with a letter; a T for take all; an H for half, that is of the stake; an N for nothing; and a P for put down, that is, a stake equal to that you put down at first.
These are, of course, identical to the rules of the dreidel game, which means the game was being played by Christians in England by the 1750s.
The Forward points out that in Germany, these rules were represented by four German letters: G for ganz (all), H for halb (half), N for nischt (nothing) and S for schict (put). These words were translated into Yiddish, which is closely related to German but is written in Hebrew letters. The resulting tops were marked with a Gimel for gants (all), a Hay for halb (half), a Nun for nit (nothing), and a Shin for shtel (put). The idea of “nes gadol haya sham,” or “a great miracle happened there” was just a later rationalization of the four letters, which were themselves transliterations of Germanic abbreviations for the actions of the game into Hebrew characters.
Why do historians prefer this story to the one about dreidels being used in the ancient world for covering up Bible study? The main reason is that there’s absolutely no evidence of dreidels, either as physical objects or as references in Jewish writings, until the 18th century. It’s very unlikely that a game which relies on a durable physical object–a top with specific Hebrew letters on it–could have been popular over almost two thousand years without a single such object surviving. It’s even more unlikely that such a conspicuous custom could have been maintained for that long a time by such a literate community without anyone ever writing about it. Indeed, the Hebrew word for dreidel, sevivon, was coined in the 19th century, because there literally was no known Semitic word for a dreidel until then. If the dreidel had been brought with Jews from ancient Judea into the diaspora, we would expect a Hebrew or Aramaic name to have come with it, and to predate the Yiddish one.
Historians think the dreidel was borrowed specifically from German speakers largely on linguistic grounds. The word “dreidel” is a Germanic word ultimately derived from from the Proto-Germanic root *þrēaną, which means “turn” or “spin.” A top in Middle High German was a “trendl,” which is closely related to modern German “drehen” (turn). Just as *þrēaną became “drehen,” so “trendl” became “dreidel.” Since in other countries the top was called by dissimilar names, such as “top” or “teetotum” in English and “toton” in French, the most likely source of the Yiddish name was German. (This part of the story is not known with certainty; it is of course possible the top was first adopted by Jews elsewhere, such as England or France, and given its Yiddish name because someone knew the older German word for top.)
So where did the tale of the subversive Torah students using a dreidel to cover their Bible study come from? The earliest citation I have seen, in the Seforim blog, is from an American Hebrew-language book from around the turn of the 20th century, Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun, written by Avraham Ever Hershovitz, a Rabbi from Pittsburgh. The third edition is online here but Seforim places the story in the earlier 1890 edition. The Din Online site, a rabbinical website dedicated to Jewish Law and Custom, likewise identifies this 1890 book as the earliest source.
Hershovitz’s book also tells a similar story about playing cards being used to cover Torah study. Given that the same story is told in this early source about the dreidel and playing cards suggests that the story could have been transferred from one gambling device to the other. Moreover, a common folklore motif in Christian folklore involves playing cards being used to study the Bible.
The best known such story involves a soldier who is reprimanded for playing cards, but who then shows that he uses the card deck as a means of meditating on the Bible. It’s mostly remembered today through a country music monologue written by T. Texas Tyler and popularized by Tex Ritter, but as a written story it goes back at least to the eighteenth century in both England (see this example from 1776) and France (See this example from 1814). If Hershovitz really is the first author to mention the dreidel as a cover for Torah study, the “soldier’s pack of cards” might well be a direct influence on the dreidel tale. (Incidentally, this variant of the story is still around in Jewish contexts today; in 2007, the Boston Globe quoted Boston College professor Dwayne Carpenter as saying that “Hanukkah card-playing was a traditional cover for Torah study, which had been outlawed for Jews by a Syrian-Greek king in the second century BCE.”)
Rabbi and professor David Golinkin points out an interesting irony of the dreidel’s history. Hanukkah is a holiday originally dedicated to rejecting cultural assimilation. The Jewish rebels resisted the Seleucid rulers who wanted them to adopt Greek lifestyles, fighting not only against Greeks but against Hellenized Jews, whom they viewed as corrupt. Part of the story Jews tell about this effort to avoid assimilation involves the use of the dreidel as a cover for studying the Torah and thus maintaining Jewish identity, making the dreidel (in this Jewish story) a means to resist cultural assimilation. But in reality the dreidel was a secular custom adopted from the Jews’ Christian neighbors. The dreidel is thus an example of the very assimilation it was supposedly used to resist.
In a further irony, it looks likely that the story about using a gambling device to facilitate Bible study and resist assimilation was borrowed from the Christian story about the card deck and applied to the dreidel–another example of assimilation.
Let’s visit one last version of the tale from The Librarians, the excellent blog from the National Library of Israel. They take a skeptical approach to the story of subversive Bible study, and try to explain the origin of the tale:
On occasion, as in the case of the dreidel, Rabbis and Halachic scholars are presented with a simple, undeniable fact they must contend with: On Hanukkah, we play dreidel. This raises the need to find (or invent) a Halachic explanation or story relating to what was, up until then, a slightly vague tradition of unclear origin.
In the 19th century, a certain group of rabbis who were faced with this question, came up with a creative answer: The dreidel, they explained, is a game Jews used to play whenever a Greek person was nearby. The idea was to fool the Greek into thinking the Jews were playing a harmless game, while hiding the fact that they were actually engaged in the forbidden study of Torah.
“But wait,” you might ask. “Who was this ‘certain group of rabbis,’ where did they live, and how do The Librarians know about them?” Sadly, we aren’t told.
In other words, in the end we’re left with more metafolklore–an origin story for an origin story. This tale may be easier for a skeptic to believe, but it’s still at story for which we’re given no evidence. It is a good idea to remember that skeptics have folklore too. Skeptical folklore may be true or false, like any other folklore. Most importantly, skeptics’ stories can lack evidence, just like anyone else’s.
Sometimes it’s metafolklore all the way down.
Note: Since the 1940s, a shift has occurred in the way we typically transliterate the Hebrew word “חֲנוּכָּה” This is due to Hebrew becoming a modern spoken language in the late 19th and 20th centuries, and the establishment of modern Hebrew language authorities in the state of Israel in the 1940s. In order to most accurately reflect the pronunciation of the classical Hebrew word, and to maintain consistency in the way individual Hebrew letters are rendered in English, the recommended transliteration today is “Hanukkah,” though in my parents’ day, and in my youth, it was usually rendered as “Chanukah.” I have used the more modern spelling, but in the quotations above, I have left the spelling as it was in each original article.