The dreidel is not just for kids. This ancient Hanukah tradition is laden with profound meaning and significance as revealed by our sages.
When I visit Israel, I try as much possible to spend time with some of the righteous sages living there to learn from their conduct and customs. One such visit led to my eyes being opened to the profound messages underlying the great holiday of Hanukah.
I was at the house of a certain great Kabbalist as he lit the Hanukah candles, hoping to learn more about the proper way to perform this special mitzvah. To my sheer astonishment, immediately after lighting Hanukah candles he rushed to get his hands on – not a book about Kabbalah, or some other sacred text, but rather…a dreidel. And he spun it, repeatedly, with a look of intensity and deep concentration on his face.
From that moment on, I could never view dreidel spinning the same way. What had always struck me as an enjoyable activity for children and a way to win treats and prizes was now something deep and profound. If this holy tzaddik was playing dreidel, and with such passion, there must be some very significant message behind this custom. And so I took it upon myself to investigate this subject, and, with Gd’s help, I unearthed several fascinating and illuminating concepts that, as mentioned, opened my eyes to the true significance of Hanukah.
We are all well aware of the explanation that the letters on the dreidel – nun, gimmal, heh, shin – represent the words, “Nes gadol hayah sham – A great miracle occurred there.” Another theory is that the letters nun and shin stand for, “nerot shemonah – candles for eight [days],” and the letters heh and gimmal stand for, “hallel gamur – the complete hallel,” such that the dreidel alludes to the two mitzvot of Hanukah: candle lighting and the recitation of Hallel.
However, several other theories exist, as well, which uncover for us some of the deeper layers of the Hanukah celebration.
“Last Minute Shopping”
The High Holiday season may seem to be far behind us, but in reality the process is not yet complete. Though the judgment is concluded on Yom Kippur, the final stamp is not placed until Hoshana Rabbah, and even after Hoshana Rabbah, Gd, in His infinite kindness, allows us the opportunity to change the verdict through the end of Hanukah. So, in a sense, the period of the High Holidays has not yet ended. Even now, we are able to change the verdict through prayer and repentance.
This concept is alluded to in the verse in Tehillim (90:3), “Tashev enosh ad daka – A human being can return until he is broken.” The numerical value of the word “daka” is 25, and thus this verse may be read to mean that a person can return to Gd “until 25.” In other words, a person is capable of repenting and changing Gd’s decree until Hanukah, which begins on the 25th day of Kislev. When seen from this perspective, Hanukah is a time for introspection and teshuvah. For those “last minute shoppers” who did not take advantage of the High Holidays and Sukkot to repent and improve themselves, Hanukah offers them one last opportunity to make the necessary changes in their lives so they can earn a favorable judgment.
Three of the letters on the dreidel – shin, nun and heh – spell the word shanah – year – and the fourth letter, gimmal, may be seen as representing the word gemar – end. These four letters thus remind us that Hanukah marks the end of the year, our final opportunity to change our decree for the year ahead. Spinning the dreidel, then, should alert us to the fact that we now have one more chance to look carefully at ourselves and our lives and make the changes that need to be made.
The Four Exiles
Others explain that the letters on the dreidel relate to the story of Yaakov Avinu’s settlement in Egypt, the story which – not at all coincidentally – we read in the Torah during this time of year.
Just to briefly review, Yosef’s brothers sold him as a slave, after which he was brought to Egypt and eventually became the country’s second-in-command. Foreseeing the impending seven-year drought, Yosef oversaw the storage of grain during the preceding years, and thus when the famine struck, people from the surrounding countries came to Egypt to purchase grain. Yaakov and his family, who were languishing from the famine in Eretz Yisrael, eventuallymoved to Egypt and were reunited with Yosef. Years later, after Yaakov and his sons had passed away, the Egyptians enslaved Beneh Yisrael. Thus, the story of Yosef and his brothers is what laid the groundwork for the Egyptian bondage.
But in truth, this story laid the groundwork not only for the Egyptian exile, but for all subsequent exiles suffered by our nation, including the one we are currently experiencing.
The holy books speak of four exiles which we have endured over the millennia:
1) The Babylonian exile: Nearly five centuries after King Shelomoh built the First Temple, the Babylonian Empire, under the rule of Nevuchadnetzar, captured Jerusalem, set the Temple ablaze, and brought the Jews to Babylonia. This was a brief exile, lasting just 70 years, after which the Babylonian Empire fell and the Jews were allowed to return to their land and rebuild the Temple.
2) The Persian exile: The Second Temple was built under the authority of the Persian Empire, and the Jews did not enjoy independence. They were thus subject to the whims of the Persian government officials, such as Haman, who, as we know, nearly succeeded in annihilating the entire Jewish Nation.
3) The Greek exile: The Persian Empire was eventually overtaken by the Greek Empire, which posed a new kind of threat to the Jewish Nation. The Greeks, unlike Haman, were content allowing the Jews to live, but sought to obliterate Jewish observance. Their target was Judaism, not Jews. As we know, the Jews rebelled against the Greeks and succeeded in overthrowing them and gaining independence, as we celebrate on Hanukah.
4) The Roman exile: The Romans eventually occupied Eretz Yisrael and burned down the Temple, triggering a long, bitter exile which has lasted nearly 2,000 years and during which we have endured numerous different forms of persecution and suffering.
The sages teach that all four exiles have roots in the Egyptian exile. Just as every person originates from the chromosomes of two parents, the four exiles are rooted in the “chromosomes” of the Egyptian exile. Thus, the Torah in Sefer Shemot (2:23) describes the period of Egyptian bondage with the words “yamim harabim” (literally, “many days”). The word “rabim” may be read as an acrostic representing the names Romi (Rome), Bavel (Babylonia), Yavan (Greece) and Madai (Media, which was part of the Persian Empire). The Egyptian exile was the source of all four subsequent exiles, and is thus described as the period of “rabim.”
This is the reason why the Torah affords such importance to remembering the Exodus from Egypt. We are required to verbally recall the event of yetziat Mitzrayim each day, and many of the Torah’s mitzvot are aimed at commemorating our departure from Egypt. The miraculous Exodus did not merely free our ancestors from Egypt; it established the model of triumph which has accompanied our nation throughout the millennia. We must constantly remind ourselves of yetziat Mitzrayimbecause we are thereby reminded that we will be freed from the current exile, too. Just as the Egyptian exile forms the basis of all subsequent exiles, the redemption from that exile forms the basis of our redemption from the subsequent exiles, as well.
Each of these four exiles has its unique characteristics. The Babylonians’ assault on the Jewish People was aimed primarily at the Bet Hamikdash. Their main objective was to deny us the immense spiritual benefits offered by the Temple. The Mikdashwas the place of the Almighty’s residence, where we could go to gain inspiration and strengthen our connection to Gd. Moreover, we had the opportunity to offer sacrifices and thereby earn atonement for our wrongdoing. The Babylonian exile, then, can be described as galut hanefesh– the exile of the soul, as it left us without the ability to develop ourselves spiritually by visiting the Temple and offering sacrifices.
The period of Persian rule, by contrast, can be described as galut haguf– the exile of the body. Haman did not set out to ban Torah study or observance. He was not interested in forcing Jews to abandon their faith; rather, he was committed to eliminating the Jewish race. The campaign he launched was against the Jewish People and had nothing to do with religion. Even if the Jews had renounced their faith en masse, it would not have mattered. Haman sought to annihilate the entire nation irrespective of their religious orientation.
In direct contrast to Haman, the Greeks launched a campaign of persecution directed at Jewish learning and scholarship. As we recite in the Al Hanissimparagraph which is added to our prayers on Hanukah, the Greeks set out “leshakeham Toratach– to make them [the Jews] forget Your Torah.” The period of Greek persecution was the galut hasechel – “exile of the mind.” This was primarily an intellectual assault aimed at eliminating our scholarly tradition and forcing us to embrace Greek culture and values.
Finally, the fourth and final exile, which we are still enduring, was and still is galut hakol– the exile that encompasses everything. Sadly, this exile has wrought all the same calamities our ancestors suffered during the previous three. Like the Babylonians, the Romans set fire to the Mikdash, and we have been left without this vital spiritual resource ever since. Haman, unfortunately, has had several ideological heirs, most notably Hitler y”sh, who committed himself to killing anybody with Jewish blood, regardless of whether they were hasidim with long beards, secular atheists, or anything in between. The Greek persecution has been relived numerous times in various different forms. In 1492, it occurred in the form of forced conversions in Spain. In the 21st century, the galut hasechel is manifest in the widespread ignorance and neglect of Torah. Although the gentile nations allow us the freedom to practice our religion as we please, the temptations and distractions of contemporary culture have proven to be at least as damaging, if not more so, to the Jewish spirit as persecution. And thus the “Greek exile” rages with full force, albeit in a much different form.
As Yaakov Avinu made his way toward Egypt, he was well aware of what was happening. He knew that this move marked the beginning of exile, and was sowing the seeds of four subsequent periods of suffering – the exiles of nefesh, guf, sechel and hakol, which are all rooted in the Egyptian exile. For this reason, as the Torah relates (Beresheet 46:28), Yaakov sent ahead his son, Yehuda, to establish a yeshivah in Goshen, the Egyptian region where the family would be living: “Ve’et Yehudah shalah…lehorot lefanav Goshnah.” As he was planting the seeds for all subsequent Jewish exiles, Yaakov knew he must also plant the seeds of our nation’s redemption, which depends upon Torah education. The foundations of learning had to be in place before the foundations of exile. Yaakov therefore sent Yehuda, from whom the Davidic dynasty – and, ultimately, the Mashiah– would emerge. The basis for redemption was put in place even before the exile began.
Intriguingly, rather than tell us that Yehuda was sent “el Goshen” (“to Goshen”), the Torah chooses the term “Goshnah.” The four letters of this word are gimmal, shin, nunand heh, which represent the words guf, sechel, nefeshand hakol. Yehuda was sent ahead to prepare for “Goshnah,” the four periods of exile which grew from the Egyptian exile. The numerical value of “Goshnah” (3+300+50+5) is 358 – the same numerical value as the word “Mashiah” (40+300+10+8), as the four exiles will once and for all end with the arrival of the Mashiah.
The Dreidel Spun by Gd
With this background, we can go ahead and pull out our dreidels, and spin them with greater joy and fervor than ever before.
The four letters on the dreidel are the letters of “Goshnah.” When we spin the dreidel, we acknowledge the fact that the four exiles which our nation has endured and continues to endure are being “spun” by the Almighty. The Hebrew word “mesovev” means “spin” as well as “cause.” Gd is the One who causes everything to happen. It is He who “spins” the world, both in the literal sense, keeping the world rotating around its axis, as well as in the figurative sense, orchestrating all world events. Even in dark periods of exile, we must reaffirm our belief in Gd as the “mesovev,” that He is turning the pages of history and will, soon enough, send us the Mashiahto redeem us.
The Hanukah candles are lit during the darkest period of the year, teaching us that the light of faith can illuminate even life’s darkest periods. Just as the tiny jug of pure oil succeeded in kindling the menorah for eight days, a small flame can break through the thickest darkness and provide light. And this is the message of the dreidel, as well. Our nation has rapidly “spun” from one exile to the next, from one crisis to another, overcoming one hurdle and then immediately confronting the next one. Hanukah reminds us that this seemingly never-ending process is being “spun” by Gd, who has given us His promise that the hardship will end and our long-awaited redemption will eventually arrive. This reminder is the small flame of faith that illuminates even the darkest of periods and brings joy and comfort even through the long, dreary night of exile.
The message of the dreidel applies to our individual lives, as well. Many of us feel that our lives “spin” and bring us one “exile” after another, that as soon as we overcome one challenge we are immediately faced with yet another. We must remember that it is Gd who spins this “dreidel” of life. As we have seen, the numerical value of “Goshnah” is the same as “Mashiah.” The same loving Gd who brings us challenges in life also brings us the solutions. Just as the dreidel eventually stops spinning, our hardships, too, eventually end.
Spinning the dreidel, then, can be a life-altering experience. As we see the dreidel turn, we should be reflecting on our lives, on the fact that Gd is “spinning” our days and years, and that the hardships alluded to by the letters on the dreidel will soon be replaced by Mashiah, by the glorious light of joy and celebration.