For Hanukah this year I received two memorable gifts. The first was an unusual dreidel created using a 3D printer. For those unfamiliar, 3D printing is a process where one creates a three dimensional item on a computer and that digital model is then formed using a process of building layer upon layer of material using the printer. I have marveled at the process for many years wondering how it could be utilized in furniture production.
The second gift was a century old publication of the works of Josephus.
We all learned in school as children that the dreidel dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks. We were taught that the Greeks outlawed the learning of Torah and any learning that took place had to be done in a secretive way. So when children got together with their rabbi or when friend would get together to learn they would have their dreidels with them. Should Syrian-Greek soldiers burst into the forbidden study groups the troops would see a den of gamblers instead of group of scholars studying Torah.
When I sat down with my son Jonah’s nephews on Wednesday night to play a game of questions and answers, they too retold the story that most of us had heard as kids. In fact a quick search of the internet shows the story repeated again and again by Ohr Somayach, Chabad,
So I looked into the book by Josephus that Chantelle bought me hoping to find something on the dreidel that Mikhayla had made for me, but as I expected, I came up with nothing.
A year ago I was sent images of some elaborate work of fine metals supposedly created by someone in Spain during the Marrano period. The piece housed everything from candlesticks, to a Kiddush cup, a megilah and a menorah, but the giveaway was the dreidel for I knew that there was no dreidel in 16th century Spain. Jews from the Middle East never saw a dreidel until they arrived to the melting pot of the State of Israel or to the shores of United States.
And the reason for that is because the dreidel apparently only entered Jewish lore about 200 years ago in Europe, but for some reason we turned fiction into fact to make the story sound better and to give the dreidel a holy history. That’s really quite dangerous.
Oh yes, many rabbis in the last century have written wonderful things about the dreidel. One of my favorite is that the letters nun, gimmel, hey, and shin have a numerical value of gematria which equals 358, which is also the numerical equivalent of mashiach or Messiah! They also represent the words Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – A great miracle happened there - although if the dreidel were really an artifact of ancient Israel I guess they should have replaced the Shin with a Peh as present day Israeli dreidels so telling us the great miracle happened here.
Others wrote how the four letters represent the four kingdoms which tried to destroy us
The Nun stands for Nebuchadnetzar or Babylon;
The Heh for Haman representing Persia or Madai;
The Gimmel for Gog representing Greece;
and the Shin for Seir, the home of Esav representing Edom or Rome.
All said and done, the dreidel game originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah. In fact its origins represent the opposite of what Hanukkah is all anout.
In Great Britain there is a game called totum or teetotum. This game is especially popular around Christmas. In English, this game is first mentioned in the early 16th century as "totum". The name comes from the Latin "totum," which means "all.” Which is what you get when you land on Gimmel,
The Eastern European game of dreidel which included a top with the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin is directly based on the German equivalent of the totum game: Those letters remain part of the game today.
N stands for Nichts or nothing; while the G for Ganz or all. The H signifies Halb or half; and the S for Stell ein or put in. In German, the spinning top was called a "torrel" or "trundl," and in Yiddish it was called a "dreidel," This became sevivon in Hebrew.
While Hanukah represents the rejection of Hellenism and Greek influence, the victory of the spiritual over the physical, and a rejection of cultural assimilation, our celebrations today often represent the irony of it all.
We created 8 days of gifts. We celebrate with Hanukah parties. We send Hanukah cards and we turn their games into our own. Of course it’s not like placing an idol in the Mikdash, but rewriting history is very dangerous; rewriting and giving reasons to customs is just as dangerous. We and our children need to always be aware. (And we won’t even get into the dangers of gambling …. Yes every gambler starts somewhere.)
This week we read of the Jacob and his family going down to Egypt. Over the next six weeks we will delve into those 210 years where we began as princes and ended as slaves, finally being freed by G-d through Moses. We are told that we survived as a nation because we kept our names, our clothes and our ways. We didn’t melt into Egypt. We have a special commandment to tell our children how G-d saved us. This has been passed from generation to generation, from parent to child and child to grandchild. Let’s make sure we stick to the script.