The Dreidel and How to Play It

All About the Hanukkah Dreidel

Colorful dreidels for sale in Machne Yehuda market, Jerusalem with Israel specific lettering on blue dreidels and diasporah lettering on orange dreidels.
Adiel lo/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter printed on each side. It is used during Hanukkah to play a popular children's game that involves spinning the dreidel and betting on which Hebrew letter will be showing when the dreidel stops spinning. Children usually play for a pot of gelt--chocolate coins covered in gold-colored tin foil--but they can also play for candy, nuts, raisins or any small treat.

Dreidel is a Yiddish word that comes from the German word "drehen," which means “to turn.” In Hebrew, the dreidel is called a "sevivon," which comes from the root "savov," which also means "to turn."

Origins of the Dreidel

There are several theories about the origin of the dreidel, but Jewish tradition has it that a game similar to the dreidel game was popular during the rule of Antiochus IV, who ruled the Seleucid Empire (centered on territory that is present-day Syria) during the second century BCE.  During this period, Jews were not free to openly practice their religion, so when they gathered to study the Torah, they would bring a top with them. If soldiers appeared, they would quickly hide what they were studying and pretend to be playing a gambling game with the top.

Meaning of the Hebrew Letters on a Dreidel

A dreidel has one Hebrew letter on each side. Outside of Israel, those letters are: נ (Nun), ג (Gimmel), ה (Hay) and ש (Shin), which stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Haya Sham." This phrase means "A great miracle happened there [in Israel]."

After the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the Hebrew letters were changed for dreidels used in Israel. They became: נ (Nun), ג (Gimmel), ה (Hay) and פ (Pey), which stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Haya Po." This means "A great miracle happened here."

  • The miracle referred to in both versions of the Hebrew phrase is the miracle of the Hanukkah oil, which by tradition occurred some 2200 years ago. As the story goes, a king from Damascus ruling over the Jews forced them to worship Greek gods. Jewish rebels fighting for their freedom reclaimed the holy temple in Jerusalem, but when attempting to rededicate the temple, they could only find enough oil to keep the flames burning for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, allowing them enough time to process more oil and keep the eternal flame lit.

    How to Play the Dreidel Game

    Any number of people can play the dreidel game. At the beginning of the game, each player is given an equal number of gelt pieces or candy, usually 10 to 15.

    At the beginning of each round, every player puts one piece into the center "pot." They then take turns spinning the dreidel, with the following meanings assigned to each of the Hebrew letters:

    • Nun means "nichts," which means "nothing" in Yiddish. If the dreidel lands with a nun facing up, the spinner does nothing.
    • Gimmel means "ganz," which is Yiddish for "everything." If the dreidel lands with the gimmel facing up, the spinner gets everything in the pot.
    • Hey means "halb," which means "half" in Yiddish. If the dreidel lands with a hey facing up, the spinner gets half of the pot.
    • Shin means "shtel," which is Yiddish for "put in." Pey means "pay." If the dreidel lands with either a shin or a pey facing up, the player adds a game piece to the pot.

    Once a player runs out of game pieces they are out of the game.