Dear Rabbi Fried,
There seem to be two basic symbols of Hanukkah, the menorah and the dreidel (spinning top). The menorah commemorates the miracle of the oil, but what does the dreidel represent?
Michael P., Dallas
The dreidel signifies a very important aspect of the Hanukkah holiday. In fact, it is as old as the menorah lighting itself.
If you take a look at the dreidel, which is Yiddish for “spinner” or “top,” you’ll notice a letter imprinted on each of its sides: nun, gimmel, hey and shin, which stand for the Hebrew words nes gadol hayah sham, meaning “A great miracle happened there.” “There” refers to Israel, which was where the story of Hanukkah took place. In Israel today, the dreidel substitutes for the “shin” (“there”), a peh, or poh, meaning “here.” Either way, this is a game that celebrates the wonderful miracle of Hanukkah taking place in the Holy Land, an unusual scenario given that most of the other holidays all celebrate events outside of Israel — Passover in Egypt or Purim in Persia, etc.
Also, the dreidel played an actual role in the Hanukkah story. One of the key components of the Greek campaign against the Jews was to prevent them from studying the Torah, which ran counter to the secularist agenda the Greeks were trying to promote. But, some Jews bravely continued teaching Torah to the children in the day schools and learning centers. The Greeks would send soldiers and police onto the streets to try and find these schools and report any forbidden teaching of Torah that might be taking place. The children devised a ruse to protect themselves in case they’d be caught. They would keep little toys in their pockets so that should the police suddenly show up they would pull out the toys and pretend to be innocently playing games as opposed to studying Torah. Those little toys were dreidels, and the ploy worked with great success — they were never caught. We maintain this game in loving memory of those children’s courage.
On a deeper level, the dreidel represents our world, which appears to be spinning without direction but is actually being controlled from above. This is the message of Hanukkah — things looked bleak for the Jews of that time and looked to be “spinning” out of control, but they weren’t. Ultimately, God brought the Jews a great victory and cause for celebration for centuries.
This message, that what looks like randomness is truly calculated from Above, is an important message — and puts a different “spin” onto Hanukkah!
Happy Hanukkah to you and the entire North Texas Jewish community!