Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel

By Sybil Kaplan, Special to the Jewish Light

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

And when it’s dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play!” S’vivon, sov, sov, sov (spinning top, turn, turn, turn) Hanukkah hu chag tov (Hanukkah is a good holiday).

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

In “Hanukkah: Eight Nights, Eight Lights,” Malka Drucker writes that the game evolved 2,000 years ago when the Hanukkah 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 writes.

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 Hanukkah, 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 Hanukkah 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 put in. 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 modem 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.

The origin of the song was the subject of an interesting article a few years ago in the Hadassah Magazine by Melanie Mitzman. 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 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.

Dreidel Games

Put and Take

On the sides of the dreidel are four letters. They stand for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham-A great miracle happened there.

To play the game, each player puts in one or more nuts or coins as agreed.

Spin the dreidel.

If it falls on N, the player does nothing.

If it falls on G, the player gets all.

If it falls on H, the player takes half.

If it falls on S, the player takes the whole pot.


All plays spin the dreidel at a given signal. The player whose dreidel spins the longest is the winner.

Play for Score

Each Hebrew letter of the dreidel has a numerical value.

N = 50

G= 3

H = 5

S = 300

Plays agree on a definite score or definite time in which to play. Each player spins the dreidel. Scorekeeper credits each player with numerical value of letter on which his dreidel falls until score is reached.