The dreidel is, of course, the four-sided top which has become almost synonymous with Chanukah. It is believed that playing dreidel likely began in response to the evil Greek decree that completely banned all Torah study. Not surprisingly, this decree was ignored by Torah scholars. When the Greek soldiers were seen approaching the schools and other centers of Torah study to investigate, the students would quickly hide their books and take out their dreidels in order to fool the soldiers into believing that they were only playing games.1
The rules of the dreidel game require each player to contribute some coins to a central fund, the proceeds of which are used to pay out the winners. Each of the four sides of the dreidel displays one of the following letters: nun, gimmel, hey, and shin. The letters of the dreidel are said to represent the first letter of a different Yiddish word. The nun stands for nisht, nothing; gimmel for gantz, all; hey for halb, half; and shin for shtel, pay. After the dreidel ceases to spin and lands on one of its sides, the letters indicate how to proceed. For example, if the dreidel lands on the letter hey, the player wins half the money currently in the pot, and so on. Although the dreidel game is essentially a form of gambling, it is generally considered to be permissible due to its simplicity and the insignificant amounts of money commonly used. Nevertheless, a number of authorities in the past opposed playing dreidel unconditionally, as well as anything that resembled gambling.2
There are several other interpretations as to the meaning of the letters on the dreidel. The letters are widely believed to be an acronym for the words, “nes gadol haya sham” meaning, “A great miracle happened there.”3 Another explanation offered is that the four letters of the dreidel represent the four spiritual elements that are found in every person: body, soul, intellect, and what is referred to as the “supreme encompassing strength.” It is also noted that the gematria of the four letters is equal to that of “mashiach.”4 Some sources claim that the original custom was to use wooden or silver dreidels.
Closely related to the custom of playing dreidel on Chanukah is that of playing cards. Playing cards on Chanukah likely became popular due to an ancient and lesser-known rabbinic decree that completely forbids playing cards except on days on which Tachanun is not recited – at which time it is permitted. Since Chanukah offers an extended break from Tachanun, many individuals took the opportunity to spend much of their free time on Chanukah playing cards.5 It is also suggested that playing cards on Chanukah was popularized to ensure that the children would keep themselves occupied so that they remain awake until the family gathered to light the menorah, which often took place well into the night.6 In some communities, playing with cards was an activity that was strictly restricted to Chanukah and Purim.7
Many authorities in the past opposed card games without exception and tried to eliminate the practice entirely.8 According to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, playing-cards are imbued with a spirit of impurity that must be vigorously avoided. It is also noted that the gematria of “cards” is “Satan.”9 Even some contemporary authorities maintain that the custom of playing cards on Chanukah should be abandoned as it can lead to gambling, theft and other possible prohibitions.10
Another reason for the opposition to playing cards on Chanukah was because the card games were often played by the light of the Chanukah candles. This violates the well-known halacha that one is forbidden to engage in any activity by the light of the Chanukah candles or to benefit from them in any way. As we recite as part of the candle lighting ceremony: “…During all eight days of Chanukah the candles we have kindled are holy and we are not permitted to make any use of them except to gaze upon them in order to praise Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations.”
Nevertheless, although at one time card games may have been excessive and possibly impacted negatively on people’s personal and professional lives, this is no longer the case today. As such, one who desires to play cards occasionally rather than engage in other unproductive pursuits, is permitted to do so.11 However, one who is able to engage in Torah study and other praiseworthy activities should certainly do so instead.12
- Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun 19:4; Divrei Yatziv, OC 2:283.
- Nitei Gavriel, Hilchot Chanuka 51:3.
- Most Israeli dreidels replace the shin with a peh, which represents the word po, meaning “a great miracle happened here.“
- Bnei Yissaschar 2:25, cited in Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 670:5.
- Mahari Bruna 136.
- Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 670:6.
- Noheg K’tzon Yosef p.188.
- Chavot Yair 126.
- Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 670:7.
- Aruch Hashulchan, OC 670:9.
- Salmat Chaim 2:48,49. See also Rema, OC 547:12; Darkei Moshe, OC 639.
- 12 Lehorot Natan 4:46; Igrot Sofrim, Chatam Sofer 3.