A few days ago, I found an interesting piece written by Rabbi David Golinkin about the origins of the Dreidel and its connection to Hanukkah. According to Rabbi Golinkin, in the past, some Rabbis claimed that the Dreidel was used by children as they were doing their best to fool the Greeks. While the foreign soldiers thought that those kids were wasting their time playing with this four-sided spinning top, in reality they were using all their energy to study Torah. Rabbi Golinkin also quotes an explanation that connects the Dreidel to Hanukkah through gematria. So, for example, the gematria of nun, gimmel, hey and shin equals 358, which is also the numerical equivalent of the word Mashiach. The idea, then, is that when we play with the Dreidel on Hanukkah, we are reminded of the miraculous salvation of those days, hoping for a new redemption in the near future. Finally, Golinkin mentions those who see in the four letters of the Dreidel the hints of the four kingdoms who tried to destroy us throughout history. The nun stands for Nebuchadnetzer, ruler of Babylon. The hey stands for Haman, the bad guy from Persia. The gimmel stands for Gog or for Greece and the shin (or actually sin) for Seir, which is one of the names for what came to be the Roman Empire. The message is clear: In every generation we face enemies willing to wipe us out of the map, but we always find a way to overcome those threats, and we celebrate transforming those bad guys into amusing toys.
In any event, none of those explanations seem to be the “real” one. They are cute and they certainly add layers of meaning to the celebration. However, if those are not the “real” reasons, from where did we come up with the idea of playing with a Dreidel?
According to Golinkin, this game originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah. Various peoples in a variety of languages have been playing with a spinning top for at least 500 years. In England and Ireland, for example, it was known as totum, or teetotum, and its name comes from Latin, where totum means all. In Germany, there was an equivalent to the English totum and, lo and behold, please pay attention to the four letters engraved in the German spinning top: N for Nichts (or nothing); G for Ganz (or everything); H for Halb (or half) and S for Stell ein (or put in). The German name of the game was “torrel” or “trundl,” from where the Yiddish for Dreidel was later derived.
With the renewal of Hebrew, the Dreidel became the Sevivon, and the four Hebrew letters became the acronym of “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” (a big miracle happened there). But, when you look closely, you see how our Hebrew letters are actually the same letters used in the German version of the game. And that is how we play with it even today.
To me, the most important part of Rabbi Golinkin’s article comes at the end, when he writes: “The dreidel game represents an irony of Jewish history. In order to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidel game, which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation! Of course, there is a world of difference between imitating non-Jewish games and worshiping idols, but the irony remains nonetheless.”
I think that this final quote points to one of the most interesting challenges we face during Hanukkah (and the rest of the year as well). As modern Jews, one of our most important tasks is to continuously negotiate the boundaries between our particular identities and the surrounding culture. We don’t have to choose between being Jewish and being American, and we can proudly be both. But then, we have to make choices that shape the way we live our Judaism in today’s America. And drawing those lines is not always an easy job.
Both politically and religiously, Jews have always had leaders claiming that the best way to deal with the world is to isolate from it. Those leaders will say that the world is too dangerous, that the risks are too many, and that mostly everyone around us wants to harm us. So, they will propose total insulation, physical and mental, as the way to deal with the multiple threats. And the truth is that they can use holidays like Hanukkah to defend their position: The few won against the many, the faithful beat the pagans, and only those unwilling to compromise were favored by G-d.
But for most of us, that’s not a solution. And it’s not only about our personal interest in being part of the wider society and taking leadership roles in the causes that are bigger than ourselves, but it is also because we know that isolating ourselves from the rest of the world won’t help us in the long run. Negotiating boundaries may be harder and more complicated, but we believe that this is the way to go.
From very early on, Jews have learned to incorporate those things that weren’t Jewish, but we saw them beneficial for our development as a people. The names of the months in the Hebrew calendar, or the fact that, even if the Torah begins with Pesach, we decided to move the beginning of the year to the seventh month, are only a few examples of this idea.
We live in a time and a place where we are pretty much responsible for establishing our own boundaries. Congregations and rabbis can help and assist but, at the end of the day, everyone decides what works best for them. It’s not that we don’t have a formal framework with clear requests, but we live in a world where a lot of people regard Jewish Law and the mitzvot less as commands and more as suggestions. It is within this context that we will have to decide when Shabbat is more important than a soccer game and when Kashrut is more relevant than our love for shrimp. Today, we live in a world where those boundaries are set by what we believe to be the core definers of what it means to be Jewish today. And, as it applies to Shabbat and Kashrut, it also applies to our involvement in making this world a better place, something that is, by the way, a core Jewish value.
By the same token, it is our Jewish responsibility, to have a good understanding of the great values of our Nation and to adopt them to keep shaping a relevant Judaism for today. Two thousand years ago, our Rabbis decided to abolish the death penalty even if that was part of the Torah, because they thought that capital punishment was cruel and against their moral intuitions. Many, many years later, something similar happened with the Jewish reaction to slavery. And, in the last century, egalitarianism in our rituals came also as a reflection of what was happening in the world, and as the consequence of understanding that a reality where men and women are fully equal cannot sustain gender inequalities in how we pray and connect with God. Our involvement with the civil rights movement and with the recognition of the LGBT community happened because of that same process. We didn’t close our eyes to what was going on in our midst. We remained attentive, and we were able to navigate the tensions, to deal with the conflicts and to negotiate the challenges at hand, making our Judaism a much better way to respond to the world.
Perhaps that’s the real light we are invited to light during Hanukkah. In that spirit, may we find the ways to adopt what we need to adopt, to adapt what we need to adapt, and to embrace our Jewish heritage in meaningful ways, while we continue to shape and create a relevant way of being Jewish in contemporary America.