During the holiday of Hanukkah, Jewish children play a traditional game with a four-sided top called a dreidel. This simple game has a fascinating history that dates back to the second century BC, when the Seleucid Empire prohibited the practice of Judaism. Today, the dreidel game is commonly played with chocolate coins, known as gelt.
A Brief History of the Dreidel Game
During the rule of the Seleucid emperor Antiochus, exiled Jews used dreidels to conceal their religious study. If soldiers payed a surprise visit to a group of religious students, the students could pretend that they were gambling with their dreidels.
In deference to the Jewish homeland of Israel, traditional dreidels were marked with four Hebrew letters that represented the phrase “a great miracle happened there.” These letters remained unchanged for over two thousand years. Then, after the founding of the State of Israel, one of the Hebrew letters was changed to represent the new phrase “a great miracle happened here.”
Over the centuries, the dreidel rules came to be influenced by other gambling games, such as the eighteenth-century game of teetotum. Today, the traditional dreidel has inspired a number of humorous games, including No-Limit Texas Dreidel and Spinagogue.
The rules for the game of dreidel are quite simple, and the game can accommodate any number of players. In addition to a plastic or wood dreidel, players will also need a stock of chocolate coins, raisins, or other game pieces (about 10 per player).
- First, the game pieces are equally divided among all the players.
- To start a game, every player contributes one piece to the “pot.”
- In turn, each player spins the dreidel. The player’s action depends on which Hebrew letter lands face-up:
- Nun: Do nothing.
- Gimmel: Win the entire pot.
- Hay: Win half the pot.
- Shin (or Pey for Israeli dreidels): Contribute another piece to the pot.
- After a player wins the whole pot, everyone must contribute one piece again to rebuild the pot.
- Players are eliminated when they have no more pieces.
- The game is over when a single player has won all the pieces.