Hanukkah Traditions – The Dreidel Game

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Religion was not a big part of our life when my brother and I were growing up. We knew that my Mother’s family was Jewish and that my Father’s family was not and that was about the extent of our religious education. But we did celebrate our culture and the tradition of the holidays. We asked the four questions and feasted like royalty for Passover. We dyed eggs and hunted them for Easter. We ate apples dipped in honey as we reflected on the past year and made plans for the next during Rosh Hashana. We thought about all the reasons we had to be thankful as we gathered with family each Thanksgiving. We were giddy over the magic and fantasy of Santa and his reindeer each Christmas. We reveled in the glow of the candles during the festival of lights.

Pair of Dreidels from forsmallhands.com

Photo used with permission from forsmallhands.com

Now that Fall is upon us, we’re making plans for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hannukah, and Christmas and I’m reflecting on the traditions we’ll be sharing with our kids. One of my favorite holiday activities is the dreidel game. You’d practically have to have been living under a rock to have gone your whole life without hearing of the dreidel but not everyone actually knows how to play this fun little game.

Dreidel means to turn. (Well it’s dreyen in Yiddish and drehen in German, but you see where it came from). When you spin the dreidel, it lands on one side with another side facing up. The characters on the four sides are actually instructions for playing the game. Each side of the dreidel has a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin). These letters spell out the rules of the dreidel game. In Yiddish, Nun means nothing, Hei means half, Gimel means all, and Shin means put in (or share in most English speaking countries).

Each player begins with an equal number of tokens. Any kind of token will do though we usually use gelt. Like a lot of gambling games, each player puts a token in the pot to start the game. On your turn, you spin the dreidel and either do nothing, take half of the pot, take all of the pot, or put in a token.

Those letters also make an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (נס גדול היה שם) which means “a great miracle happened there.” As most folks know, Hanukkah, the festival of lights, is all about the miracle that occurred when a tiny bit of lamp oil last eight nights. That’s one of the reasons that the dreidel game is most commonly associated with Hannukah.

So there you have it. Grab yourself a dreidel, some gelt, and you are all ready to go!

What are some of your favorite holiday traditions?

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