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The REAL Story of the Dreidel

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Jared Skoff12.16.20

Depending on whether your dreidel was made in Israel or outside of Israel, it will carry one of two series of letters: Nun Gimel Hay Shin OR Nun Gimel Hay Pay, standing for: Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (A Great Miracle Happened There) OR Nes Gadol Hayah Po (A Great Miracle Happened Here).

And so the season has arrived for our annual debate:

Which statement did the original dreidel carry?

The correct answer is neither!

The four-sided spinning top now so strongly identified with the miracle of Hanukkah was originally a popular game played by Irish and English children during a different December holiday. Though the history of the 6-sided top goes back thousands of years, our earliest written record of the four-sided “totum” game is from the year 1500 in England. In English letters, the sides read: T (for “Take all”), H (for “half”), P (for “put down”), and N (for “nothing”).

As “totum” spread across Europe, Jewish children saw their German peers playing the game around the holiday season. Translated into German, these four-sided spinning tops called “dreihen” read: Gantz, Halb, Shtel, and Nisht.

Some of you may recognize these words, because they mean the same thing in both German and Yiddish. Just as the “gantze megillah” means the “whole megillah,” the Gimel on your dreidel means “take the whole thing.” And if you spin a Nun in a game of dreidel, you will be left with gor-Nisht (that is Yiddish for “bupkes”). Though Yiddish uses the same words as German, the language is written exclusively with Hebrew letters. As you have probably guessed, Jewish children around Hanukkah time translated their neighbors’ spinning tops into Yiddish, innovating the Nun-Gimel-Hay-Shin that we all know and love.

In honor of the Yiddish roots of our beloved dreidel, I invite you to sing the ORIGINAL dreidel song with your family this Hanukkah. Chag sameach!

Ikh Bin A Kleyner Dreydl

איך בין אַ קליינער דריידל, געמאַכט בין איך פון בלײַ

קומט לאָמיר אַלע שפּילן, אין דריידל – איינס, צוויי, דרײַ

אוי, דריידל, דריידל, דריידל, אוי, דריי זיך, דריידל, דריי

טאָ לאָמיר אַלע שפּילן, אין דריידל, איינס און צוויי

Ikh bin a kleyner dreydl, gemakht bin ikh fun blay.

Kumt lomir ale shpiln, in dreydl – eyns, tsvey, dray.

Oy, dreydl, dreydl, dreydl, oy, drey zikh, dreydl, drey

To lomir ale shpiln, in dreydl, eyns un tsvey.

I am a little dreidel, I am made from lead.

Come let’s all play dreidel – one two three.

Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh, dreidel, dreidel, spin.

So let’s all play dreidel, one and two.

nisht = none = נישט

ganz = all = גאַנץ

halb = half = האַלב

shtel = place down = שטעל

About the Author

Jared Skoff

Jared Skoff is the Program Director of the National Ramah Commission. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he currently lives in Los Angeles where he is in rabbinical school at AJU. When he is not planning Ramah leadership programs, you will find him curing a lox, brining a corned beef and working his way through the Second Avenue Deli cookbook.