Getting the best spin on the dreidel game

My dreidel collection seems to grow every year. The last time I counted, I had 67 four-sided tops in all sizes and colors. During the eight days of Hanukkah, I keep these inexpensive little toys in a big bowl on my coffee table right next to the stack of Everyday With Rachel Ray magazines.

The dreidel game is a wonderful family activity that never gets old. Then again, neither does chocolate gelt. I feel like a kid again when I flick my wrist in just the right way to make the wooden dreidel spin like a mini-cyclone. I’m always up for a challenge when my kids want to see who can twirl their dreidel the longest or knock one off the table. So, dig into your piggy banks and purses and gather everyone’s pennies. You also can use candy, raisins, nuts, tokens, or even count by points. It’s time for some serious dreidel playing.


In case you need a refresher course on how to play the classic Hanukkah game, which was originally a popular Yiddish gambling activity, keep in mind these few simple rules. All players start with the same amount of coins or tokens, say 10. Everyone puts one token in the pot in the center. Each person, maybe youngest to oldest, takes turns spinning the dreidel. Whatever Hebrew letter lands facing up is what the player does. For example: Nun (“Nisht” in Yiddish) means collect nothing; Gimel (“Gesht” is “get” in Yiddish) means take all the tokens in the pot; Hay (“Halb”) means take half of the tokens; and Shin (“Shtel” is “set”) means the player puts one token in the kitty. Whoever ends up with all the loot or the most tokens is the winner. The Hebrew letters –Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin — supposedly stand for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” or “A Great Miracle Happened There.”

In other words, the dreidel game is a great opportunity to learn about Jewish history. The word “dreidel,” which derives from the German “dreihen,” meaning “to spin,” originated more than 2,000 years ago as a way for Jews to hide their studying at a time when reading from the Torah was prohibited. In fact, Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over the Syrians-Greeks, who banned Jewish practices. If someone tried to read Jewish text or perform a Jewish ritual, such as a bris, they were sent to jail or killed. During this time of suppression, the clever Jewish people pretended to gamble when they were actually intellectualizing their religion. So in modern times, families not only have fun together, but they are expressing their religious freedom every time they spin the top.

For adults who want to take the game up a notch, try using dimes and quarters and combining the activity with poker. Even though gambling is technically forbidden by the Jewish religion, the winner can donate his stash to charity, right?

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Currently, she is obsessing over everything for her son’s upcoming bar mitzvah, so please feel free to send any advice to: [email protected] or visit her website at