Blog PostsChanukah

The Dreidel Spinner

If we were to do a survey to find out which is the most favorite Jewish holiday, Chanukah would probably reach the top of the list. Children and adults alike enjoy basking in the special light that envelops us and warms the heart during this beloved festival.

What is it that is so attractive about Chanukah? It seems that it is the warm family atmosphere and special traditions that surround the festival. The sweetest childhood memories are aroused as the family sits around the table, playing dreidel with the delicious aroma of latkes frying in the kitchen… So, let’s spin around and get into the Chanukah mood.

The Final Festival

From the perspective of Jewish law, Chanukah is actually the least festive of all festivals. In fact, it is not even clear that it should be referred to as a “festival” at all. There is no prohibition against working on Chanukah, and there is no obligation to eat a festive meal or to wear festive clothing―there is just one single mitzvah: to light Chanukah candles. Aside from that, there is one addition that we add to our prayers (עַל הַנִיסִים) but, even if we forget to say it, there is no need to repeat the prayer. Yet, although the Rabbinical obligations are scarce, there is an abundance of customs that are part and parcel of the Chanukah tradition.

Historically speaking, Chanukah is the final festival that was added to the Jewish calendar. [1] First is Shabbat, which is rooted in Creation, followed by the entire cycle of festivals that are mentioned in the Torah. Next came Purim, which was added at the beginning of the second Temple era―a festival that is validated by the Prophets and whose story appears as one of the books of Tanach. Finally, Chanukah is unique in the fact that it is a festival that was entirely authorized by the sages of the Oral Torah. However, even in the Mishnah it is hardly mentioned, and even then, just anecdotally. What this means is that Chanukah is a festival that has been nurtured as a Rabbinic injunction from below, unlike the other festivals which were God-given. This is why Chanukah has such a special place in the Jewish heart, and has even been referred to as representative of “the Jewish spirit.”

Chanukah Customs

There are various levels to the concept of a custom. There are some customs that have been set as obligatory in Jewish law, and a whole line of customs that include some that are non-obligatory recommendations or merely suggested practices. At the bottom of the scale of priorities, we can usually find those customs that relate to food, which are hardly mentioned at all in Rabbinical literature. Although there are some Jewish delicacies that are commonly eaten on certain occasions, nonetheless, Jewish law does not obligate the consumption of most of them at all. However, the aroma of the Jewish kitchen is definitely a central component of Jewish life and whichever community you belong to, the traditional foods have absorbed a spiritual significance that adds to their flavor.

Regarding Chanukah, the tradition to eat dairy foods is mentioned in Rabbinical literature [2] and doughnuts are also an early custom. [3] Latkes are also mentioned as a custom that tzadikim (sing.tzadik, righteous person) and their chassidim (sing. chassid, followers of a Chassidic leader in this context) made into an annual ritual. [4]

Yet, although Jewish tradition has made its way into the kitchen, it is unusual to find it stamped on games… There might be some people who sing and play music as they watch the Chanukah candles twinkle in the foreground, there are obviously others who study Torah while the candles are alight, and there are certainly those who silently meditate on the flickering flames. But, at best, playing with a spinning top seems to depart completely from the realm of sacred customs into the mundane realm of the secular. At its worst, there are sources that rebuke and chastise those who sit around playing cards on Chanukah―the type of game that begins with light-headedness and ends somewhere we certainly do not want to go. [5]

Yet, in fact, on Chanukah we do adopt game theory. Playing the dreidel is an ancient custom, which some of the greatest Chassidic tzadikim were fond of, and they even found significant allusions in the game to profound spiritual insights. [6]

The most famous source in this context is in Bnei Yissachar, written by Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Midinov, who wrote: “Here you will understand how our fathers’ traditions are Torah, since the custom is that on Chanukah, the youngsters play with a cube of wood which has the letters gimmel-shin-nun-hei(גשנ”ה) written separately on each side, and this wooden cube spins around its central axis [he then explains that this alludes to the four kingdoms who have suppressed the Jewish People throughout history, and in the end all of them will be annulled to the central point, which is the Jewish People.]”

In the same context, a story is told of the author of Bnei Yissachar, who arrived at the home of one of Rabbi Yaakov Orenstein, a Torah giant who was not a Chassid. After discussing Torah ideas together for some time, Rabbi Yaakov Orenstein was impressed by his guest’s knowledge, and he asked him his name. The guest replied, “My name is Tzvi Elimelech, and I am from the city of Dinov. Rabbi Yaakov then said, “If so then it is you who wrote the book Bnei Yissachar and wrote the reasons why we use a rattle on Purim and play the dreidel on Chanukah?!” and he laughed. Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech nodded his head and said, “I am he” and he too laughed, and they both laughed together…

Laughter and Games

Having laughed heartily, we can now ask in all seriousness, why did Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech laugh? Did he not take seriously what he had written in his book? The profound reason is because Jewish customs are rooted in a very high source. Let’s explain this as it is taught in Kabbalah and Chassidut.

The highest source of the Torah lies in a hidden level, elevated far beyond anything we can know, way back when God “initiated His desire” to create the world. As the lofty desire to create the world was instigated, the Torah―also a primordial creation, “Torah preceded the world” [7]―rose and spread before God. This is how God “looked into the Torah and created the world” [8] using it as a precise blueprint for His creation. This is where the power lies in the Torah’s obligatory laws that were given to the Jewish People. Every clause of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) has its roots in the most exalted holy source, and represents a Divine truth from which we cannot divert.

But, even higher than the point where God’s desire to create the world was initiated, is a level that is referred to in Kabbalah as “the Delights of the King in Himself.” There it is as if the Almighty amused Himself with His Infinite Light, without any urge to create the world and without any reality of there being “another.” Yet, amazingly, this exalted level is reflected as the non-obligatory customs we keep, right here in our lowest mundane reality. Those Jewish customs that have been sanctified by the power of tradition, and which bring such a good flavor and such an attractive light into our Jewish lives, in a mysterious way stem from that level at which God delights in Himself. So it is that we too, the Jewish People whose souls are “literally a part of God above” [9] rejoice in our Jewishness, embellishing it with buds and flowers, customs and games. This is how we can explain how the laughter of the two tzadikim in the story above is an echo of those very same Delights that the King delights in Himself; laughter and fun expressed by a game of fun.

Historians might research the source of the Chanukah dreidel game, and where it first appears, but for us the historical sources are not really relevant, because, at some stage, this game has been legally “converted.” We believe that it has spun to our doorsteps by Divine Providence as a dearly loved tool to reveal the sweetest Torah secrets.

God Doesn’t Play Dice (He Plays the Dreidel…)

So, let’s continue to have fun with the Chanukah dreidel.

The classic dreidel is made of a cube with a cone-shaped pointed base. While the dreidel is spinning, its square sides are obscured until it appears circular. We can see this as an allusion to the Hasmonean’s victory over the Greeks, which was a victory of the Jewish worldview over the Hellenistic culture. Greek wisdom believed that the human intellect can create a complete, perfect worldview. One might say that the mind of a Hellenistic perceives the world as square with straight lines. A mind with this perspective compartmentalizes, analyzes, divides and defines limits. But, even though nature itself is more like a circle and has no squares, as the sages taught, “There has never been a [natural] square since the six days of Creation,” [10] the intellect tends to square off the circle. Science measures the infinite cycles of nature, measuring them and explaining them through set laws and patterns, until it seems that nature, like the human mind, is “square.”

The Greek-scientific mind cannot accept that there is anything beyond a square. So much so that when modern science revealed a phenomenon that is rationally unexplainable, one of the greatest scientists reacted by saying, “God doesn’t play dice.” [11]

However, Jewish wisdom knows something that Greek wisdom can never fathom. With all due respect to the inquisitive mind, which can reach phenomenal achievements in every scientific field, there is a higher force than nature, which spins the world that is so familiar to us and so apparently explainable.

In Kabbalistic terminology, God’s light is enclothed within the limited world that is run by the laws of nature. This is God’s immanent light that “fills all worlds” and behaves logically by following the rules of the game without any deviation. But, beyond the light that fills all worlds is a Divine light that “surrounds all worlds.” This is God’s infinite light (as opposed to His immanent light which is contained within the finite vessel of the world). One might say that beyond the various planetary systems that apparently set the world in motion through fixed laws is a hidden inner system that turns the world around on a different axis. This system of surrounding light is where miracles sometimes trickle through to our world, like the drops of oil from the small jar that the Hasmonean’s found in the Temple, which obstinately stayed alight for eight consecutive days.

So, yes, God does play “dice”! He spins the cube-shaped dreidel and turns it into a circle, revealing the great circular power that spins the world, and with each spin, He instills more and more miracles into the natural world. Even if the miracle is mysteriously hidden behind nature’s mask―in the guise of historical or scientific events―we can still open our eyes and reveal that a great miracle happened.

Spinning the Light of Mashiach

Finally, we will mention that the four letters that appear on the dreidel’s four sides are the initial letters of “A great miracle happened there [i.e., in the Holy Land].” These four letters spell out the word “To Goshen” (גֹשְׁנָה), which appears in the Torah portion of Vayigash in the verse, “And Judah he sent before him… to Goshen.” Indeed the Chassidic masters have added another allusion to this by calculating the numerical value of these four letters, which equals 358, the numerical value of Mashiach (מָשִׁיחַ), explaining that Mashiach’s light descends to the world on Chanukah. [12]

In recent generations, the trend in Israel has been to change the letters on the dreidel to nun-gimmel-hei-pei (נגה”פ), which are the initials of the phrase, “A great miracle happened here.” But, if anyone expected to evade the messianic connotations of the dreidel by doing so, they have been unsuccessful, because the numerical value of these four letters is 138, which is the value of Menachem (מְנַחֵם) one of the possible names of Mashiach and also the value of Tzemach (צֶמַח)―which literally means, “plant”―as the verse states, “A man, whose name is Tzemach” [13] and as we pray three times daily, “Speedily grow the plant of David, Your servant.”

For more on the Dreidel’s hidden meanings, read our article here

[1] Another, later addition to the Jewish calendar is Lag Ba’omer, which is not even considered a festival.

[2] Shulchan AruchOrach Chaim, 670:2 (Rama).

[3] Responsa from Rabbi Maimon, father of Maimonides (Rambam) printed in the booklet Sarid Ufalit and quoted in the book, Nitei Gavriel Chanukah, p. 311.

[4] See Hayom Yom for 28th Kislev.

[5] Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains that each of playing cards typically used has a kelipah or impurity to them, Kedushas Levi, Chanukah – “Yadua.”

[6] See Sichot Moharan 40; Likutei HalachotHilchot Shutafim Bakarka 5 and the source mentioned inNitei Gavriel, Chanukah p. 306. This is also similar to Lag Ba’Omer, when the custom is to play with bows and arrows, a game that at first glance is reminiscent of negative figures of hunters in the Torah, Esau and Ishmael.

[7] Bereishit Rabah 1:4.

[8] Ibid 1:1.

[9] Tanya ch. 2

[10] Jerusalem Talmud, Ma’asrot 5:3.

[11] A quote attributed to Albert Einstein, brought to express his opposition to Quantum Mechanics; mentioned several times in our book “Lectures on Torah and Modern Physics” to explain the dynamics between determinism and free-will.

[12] Mentioned in the name of Rabbi Pinchas of Karitz, Imrei PinchasShabbat U’moadim 222.

[13] Zachariah 6:12.

Related posts

Checkmate to the Kings of Edom

Imry GalEinai

Honoring Our Father and Mother

Imry GalEinai

Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson: A Lesson in Building the World

Imry GalEinai

Leave a Comment

Verified by MonsterInsights