A dreidel or dreidl ( DRAY-d?l; Yiddish: , romanized: dreydl, plural: dreydlekh;[a]Hebrew: , romanized: sevivon) is a four-sided spinning top, played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The dreidel is a Jewish variant on the teetotum, a gambling toy found in many European cultures.
Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: ? (nun), ? (gimel), ? (hei), ? (shin), These letters were originally a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: Nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht ("nothing"), Hei stands for halb ("half"), Gimel for gants ("all"), and Shin for shtel ayn ("put in"). However, nowadays they are commonly regarded to represent the Hebrew phrase nes gadol hayah sham ("a great miracle happened there"). For this reason, dreidels in Israel replace the letter Shin with a letter Peh, to represent the phrase nes gadol hayah poh ("a great miracle happened here").
According to most scholars, the dreidel developed from an Irish or English top introduced into Germany known as a teetotum, which was popular around Christmas time and dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times. The teetotum was inscribed with letters denoting the Latin words for "nothing," "half," "everything" and "put in." In German this came to be called a trendel, with German letters for the same concepts. Adapted to the Hebrew alphabet when Jews adopted the game, these letters were replaced by shin (=shtel arayn, put in); nun (=nit, not, i.e., nothing); gimel (=gants, whole/everything); and he (=halb, half). The letters served as a means to recalling the rules of the game.
This theory states that when the game spread to Jewish communities unfamiliar with Yiddish, the denotations of the Hebrew letters were not understood. As a result, there arose Jewish traditions to explain their assumed meaning. However, in Judaism there are often multiple explanations developed for words. A popular conjecture had it that the letters abbreviated the words "nes gadol haya sham" (a great miracle happened there), an idea that became attached to dreidels when the game entered into Hanukkah festivities.
According to a tradition first documented in 1890, the game was developed by Jews who illegally studied the Torah in seclusion as they hid, sometimes in caves, from the Seleucids under Antiochus IV. At the first sign of Seleucids approaching, their Torah scrolls would be concealed and be replaced by dreidels. The variant names goyrl (destiny) and varfl (a little throw) were also current in Yiddish until the Holocaust. In the wake of Zionism, the dreidel was renamed sevivon in modern Hebrew, and the letters altered, with shin generally replaced by pe. This yields the reading nes gadol haya po (a great miracle happened here.')
The Yiddish word dreydl comes from the word dreyen ("to turn", compare to drehen, meaning the same in German). The Hebrew word sevivon comes from the Semitic root SBB ("to turn") and was invented by Itamar Ben-Avi (the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) when he was 5 years old. Hayyim Nahman Bialik used a different word, kirkar (from the root KRKR - "to spin"), in his poems, but it was not adopted into spoken Hebrew.
In the lexicon of Ashkenazi Jews from Udmurtia and Tatarstan the local historian A.V. Altyntsev was fixed several other appellations of a dreidel such as volchok, khanuke-volchok, fargl, varfl, dzihe and zabavke.
Some rabbis ascribe symbolic significance to the markings on the dreidel. One commentary, for example, connects the four letters with the four nations to which the House of Judah was historically subject--Babylonia, Persia, Seleucid Empire and Rome. Others claimed the four letters cyphered Babylon, Persia, Greece and the Roman Empire, the four ancient empires that tried to destroy Israel. A gematriya reading yields the number 358, identical to the value of the four letters used to spell "Moshiach" (Messiah).
Each player begins with an equal number of game pieces (usually 10-15). The game pieces can be any object, such as chocolate gelt, pennies, raisins, etc.
These rules are comparable to the rules for a classic four-sided teetotum, where the letters A, D, N and T form a mnemonic for the rules of the game, aufer (take), depone (put), nihil (nothing), and totum (all). Similarly, the Hebrew letters on a dreidel may be taken as a mnemonic for the game rules in Yiddish. Occasionally, in the United States, the Hebrew letters on the dreidel form an English-language mnemonic about the rules: Hay or "H" for "half;" Gimel or "G" for "get all;" Nun or "N" for "nothing;" and Shin or "S" for "share".
Thomas Robinson and Sujith Vijay have shown that the expected number of spins in a game of dreidel is O(n2), where n is the number of game pieces each player begins with. The implied constant depends on the number of players.
Robert Feinerman has shown that the game of dreidel is "unfair", in that the first player to spin has a better expected outcome than the second player, and the second better than the third, and so on.
Childhood enjoyment of dreidels has led to interest in collecting them in adulthood. Jewish institutions such as the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, Yeshiva University Museum and Temple Emanu-El in New York, house dreidel collections, as do museums such as the Spinning Top and Yo-Yo Museum in Burlington, Wisconsin.
Dreidel is now a spoof competitive sport in North America. Major League Dreidel (MLD), founded in New York City in 2007, hosts dreidel tournaments during the holiday of Hanukkah. In MLD tournaments the player with the longest time of spin (TOS) is the winner. MLD is played on a Spinagogue, the official spinning stadium of Major League Dreidel. Pamskee was the 2007 MLD Champion. Virtual Dreidel was the 2008 MLD Champion. In 2009, Major League Dreidel launched a game version of the Spinagogue.
In 2009, Good Morning America published a story on Dreidel Renaissance reporting on the rising popularity of the dreidel. Dreidel games that have come out on the market since 2007 include No Limit Texas Dreidel, a cross between traditional dreidel and Texas Hold'em poker, invented by a Judaica company called ModernTribe. Other new dreidel games include Staccabees and Maccabees.