Dreidel Symbols

Dreidel Symbols- History And Meaning

Every Jew knows what a dreidel is. It’s a spinning top with four sides, played during the famous Jewish festival called Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights.

Needless to say, the dreidel game is one of the most famous Hanukkah traditions, along with gelts, latkes and the menorahs.

Dreidel Symbols- History And Meaning

Dreidel Symbols
Image by Adiel lo through Wikimedia | CC

If you want to learn more about the Dreidel symbols, read on to find out the meaning, history, and significance of this Jewish symbol.

Dreidel Symbol History

In 175 BCE, Greek King Antiochus IV had forbidden all Jewish religious worship. Jews at the time created the dreidel in order for them to learn Hebrew and study the Torah in secret.

The dreidel was actually a spinning top, which was a popular gambling device at the time. Jews studied the Torah orally with the use of dreidels, pretending to play them so if Greeks raided these Torah scholars, they would find “gamblers” instead. This way, the Greeks would leave the Jews alone.

However, this story is claimed by some to be just a legend. The exact origins of the dreidel game remains unclear, although evidence suggests that gamblers from Babylon used blocks decorated with images of Ishtar and Ninurta (Roman counterparts: Venus and Saturn, respectively) that symbolized winning and losing.

According to an anthology about Jewish holidays called Sefer Hamoadim, the dreidel was created in ancient Rome or Greece, brought to England by Roman settlers or soldiers. This explains why some English tops bear Latin/Roman letters.

These are the letters A, D, N, and T. “A” stands for aufer, which translates as “take from the pot”; “D” stands for depone, which means “put  into the pot”; “N” for nihil, meaning”nothing”; and “T” for totum, or “take all.”

The Dreidel Symbols

Post Medieval toy dreidel
Post Medieval toy dreidel / Image by Amy Downes (West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service) from Wikimedia | CC

Yiddish-speaking Jews gave the name “dreidel” to the spinning top and the game. The term came from the German word “drehen” which means “to spin.” They also replaced the letters with their Hebrew counterparts.

The new letters on the dreidle mean the same, but “G” became gimel or “all,” “H” became hey or “half,” “N” became nun or “nothing,” and “S” became shin, meaning “put in.”

These Hebrew letters inscripted on the dreidel’s sides make up the acronym for the Hebrew saying “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which can be translated as “A great miracle occurred here.”

This is in reference to the miracle which is what Hanukkah is all about, which is the recovery of Jerusalem and the subsequent rededication of the Second Temple.

Spinning a dreidel is part of the Hanukkah celebration. It is spun to see what letter it lands on. While spinning, the dreidel symbolizes our lives.

This signifies that we “spin” our lives in circles until we eventually attain the awareness that only when we all spin ourselves together around a common goal to unite as one will we achieve true happiness and harmony, and realize the purpose of our existence.

Dreidel Symbols Meaning

Dreidels for Hanukha
Image by Nizzan Cohen through Wikimedia | CC

A dreidel, also spelled “dreidle” or “dreidl,” is a spinning top bearing an inscription of 4 Hebrew letters around its sides. These letters – N, G, H, S – make up the acronym for the Hebrew saying which means, “A great miracle occurred here.”

Most scholars claim that the dreidel may have originated from the English spinning top called a teetotum that dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times.

The dreidel is a famous Hanukkah custom. Today, Jews play the dreidel game as a way to celebrate their rich history. It also serves as entertainment among friends and family.

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