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Yiddish-speakers changed the name of the top and of the game from the German word drehen, meaning “to spin.”

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“When the Syrian-Greeks ruled over the Holy Land, they outlawed many Jewish practices, such as circumcision, Shabbat observance and Torah learning. With great self-sacrifice, the Jewish children would hide in caves to learn Torah. When they would see a Greek patrol approaching, they would quickly hide their scrolls and take out spinning tops, pretending to have simply been playing a game.” (Quote and photo: Chabad.org)

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“I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay, 

And when it’s dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play!”* 

S’veevon, sov, sov, sov (spinning top, turn, turn, turn) 

Hanukah hu chag tov (Chanukah is a good holiday). 

The origin of the dreidel song was the subject of an interesting article a few years ago in the Hadassah Magazine by Melanie Mitzman, originally from Ohio, who lived in Brooklyn and was marketing manager for a division of Simon & Schuster publishing. She wrote that Professor of Music and Jewish Studies at Northeastern University, Joshua Jacobson, claimed the song was originally in Yiddish and the opening line was “I made it out of lead.” 

Samuel Grossman, a Jewish composer from Massachusetts who died at the age of 90 in March 2019, is said to have penned the English lyrics, and Samuel Goldfarb, a Jewish liturgical composer employed by the Bureau of Jewish Education between 1914 and 1929, wrote the melody for the English version. Goldfarb’s granddaughter, Susan Wolfe, recalls telling her public school class that her grandfather had written “The Dreidel Song,” but they did not believe her. 

Both of these songs underscore the most popular game for Chanukah–dreidel (Yiddish) or s’vivon (Hebrew), which means spinning top. 

In Hanukah: Eight Nights, Eight Lights, Malka Drucker, a rabbi and author, wrote that the game evolved 2,000 years ago when the Chanukah story took place, at a time when Antiochus ruled over Judea in ancient Israel. 

“Groups of boys who had memorized the entire Torah would secretly study together until they heard the footsteps of the Syrian soldiers. Then they would quickly pull out spinning tops … and pretend to be playing games,” she wrote. 

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Whether this is true or not, we do know that by the Middle Ages, the game became more complicated, as rules were borrowed from a German gambling game. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, during the long nights of Chanukah, while the lights were burning, it became customary to pass the time by spinning tops and playing the ancient “put and take” game. This was in fulfillment of the commandment that the Chanukah lights should not be used for any utilitarian purpose; “they are only to be seen.” 

Playing cards and games were prohibited by the rabbis over the years and were deplored as frivolous because they took away from Torah study, however, the custom continued. 

In Medieval Germany, dice were used for the game, and they were inscribed with N, G, H, and S. N stood for nichts or nothing; G stood for ganz or all; H was for halb or half; and S meant stellein or 

  • All players would hold an equal number of nuts, raisins or coins. 
  • Each player put one in the middle, and the first player would spin the dice. 
  • Each letter stood for a move in the game- putting in or taking out nuts, raisins or coins, according to where the dice landed. 

Later, boys carved tops or dreidels out of wood or poured hot lead into a form to make a spinning top. The letters were then changed to Hebrew and said to stand for nun, gimmel, hey and shin. The rabbis were less reluctant for boys to play because the letters were interpreted to stand for the phrase, Nes Gadol Hayah Sham–a great miracle happened there. 

In modern Israel, the Hebrew letter shin is replaced by a peh, standing for poh, meaning here–a great miracle happened here. 

The rabbis felt even more comfortable about the game when it was also realized that when the Hebrew letters, which had numerical value, were added together, they totaled 358, the same number of letters as the word for Messiah. (Nun is 50, gimmel is three, hey is five and shin is 300.) 

The letters of the word Messiah or mashiach in Hebrew are mem which is 40, shin which is 300, yud which is 10 and chet which is eight. Since the Jews are still waiting for the Messiah, this would show the way for a miracle. 

Another mystical interpretation of the Hebrew letters is described by Philip Goodman in The Hanukkah Anthology. He writes that nun stood for nefesh (Hebrew for soul); gimmel stood for guf  (Hebrew for body); shin stood for sechal (Hebrew for mind); and hey stood for hakol (all) implying all the characteristics of man. 

Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, food writer and author (Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel), nine cookbooks (including What’s Cooking at Hadassah College.) She lived in Israel from 1970-1980; she and her late husband, Barry, came to live in Jerusalem in 2008, where she works as a foreign correspondent for North American Jewish publications, lectures to senior citizen residences, walks in English in Machaneh Yehudah, the Jewish produce market. She has been book reviewing for 40 years. 

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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