By Harriet P. Gross
Did you ever make a little dreidel out of clay? I never did. I never even saw one, although I have seen wax crayons in dreidel shapes. These, and that little ditty that seems the essence of Chanukah to many, reinforce the notion that the dreidel is “just” a simple toy.
Not so, according to Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, whose new little book, “The Dreidel’s Hidden Meanings,” is the latest in his extensive “Mysteries of Judaism” series. It’s an explanation of the toy through an exploration of the numbers related to it — an exercise in gematria, the ancient Jewish art and practice of assigning numerical values to letters, words and phrases, and drawing ever-deeper meanings as a result.
So Rabbi Ginsburgh begins with the holiday itself: “The eight days of Chanukah commemorate the miraculous lighting of the seven-branched Menorah in the Holy Temple for eight days,” he says, “connecting the numbers 7 and 8. In Jewish tradition, the number 7 represents a state of natural perfection (for example, Shabbat is the seventh day of the week); the number 8 represents a state of supernatural perfection (for example, circumcision is done on the child’s eighth day). Thus Chanukah unites the natural with the supernatural, the finite with the infinite.”
And here’s how the dreidel comes to fit into this scheme: The numerical values of the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hei and shin, initials in that popular Chanukah phrase translated into English as “A great miracle happened there,” add up to 358, which is also the total value of the letters in the word Mashiach (Messiah). So “The recurring motif found in the dreidel is that of changing the world and making it a worthy dwelling place for the Almighty,” the rabbi says.
Now: what about the letter change in Israel, where nun, gimel, hei and PEI represent “A great miracle happened HERE” rather than THERE? Well, “Their numerical sum would come to 138,” according to Rabbi Ginsburgh. “But you cannot escape the dreidel’s inner meaning; 138 is the value of Menachem and Tzemach, names of the Meshiach according to the sages and appearing in the Bible….” So every spin of the dreidel, whether there or here, is an invitation to, and a promise of, redemption.
Speaking of spinning: The Hebrew word for our Chanukah toy is sevivon, which comes from a root word meaning “to spin.” And the numerical value of sevivon’s letters is 130, also the value of the Hebrew word for “eye.” So “Sevivon represents the eye that sees the Divine spinning within the natural world,” according to the rabbi. “This connection between the dreidel and eyesight is best illustrated by the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles…. Our obligation is simply to look at their light, letting it shine into the depth of our souls….”
The Yiddish “dreidel” also comes from a word that means “to spin,” and its numbers equal 248, which is the gematria — the numeric equivalent — of Abraham, who “spun” around the world to reveal God’s presence. “In this sense,” Rabbi Ginsburgh tells us, “every Jewish soul descended from Abraham is a dreidel….”
And in English, the most descriptive word is just plain “top,” which holds some not-so-simple linguistic surprises. “Transliterating ‘top’ into Hebrew yields the word meaning ‘infant’ or ‘child,’” which links the dreidel to its most common perception as a youngster’s toy. But the numerical value of “top” in Hebrew is 89 — also the number equivalent of Chanukah itself! So, Rabbi Ginsburgh reminds us, we’ve come a full, spinning circle back to where we started: “The best time to play with a top is indeed on Chanukah — and with children, of course!”
And this is by no means all. The word for “falling over,” as the dreidel does when its spin runs down, is a grammatical relative of the word for “wonder”:
“The spinning dreidel reminds us of wandering to and fro, like the Jew who, while exiled from the Land of Israel, travels through the world searching for a spark of holiness…. The dreidel tipping over suggests that we are all in need of support from above…. The last stage, falling, is usually associated with something negative, but here represents our wondrous and surprising return to God.”
Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s writings were blessed for publication by the great Lubavitcher Rebbe himself almost 40 years ago. Visit www.inner.org to learn more about this rabbi and his teachings. “The Dreidel’s Hidden Meanings” is newly published by Gal Einai Institute (www.innermedia.org) at $8.95. Read it to celebrate more deeply!
By Harriet P. Gross