How to Play Dreidel on Hanukkah
One of the best ways to celebrate Hanukkah is to play dreidel (sevivon in Hebrew) with your family and friends. Not only is it a traditional game played during the holiday and an important Hanukkah ritual, but it’s also the perfect excuse to eat excessive amounts of chocolate gelt.
Sevivon in Hebrew: comes from the Semitic root “to turn”
What is a Dreidel?
We spin the dreidel — a four-sided spinning top — on Hanukkah. The custom came to be according to the following legend:
Before the Maccabees defeated King Antiochus and the Greek armies, the regime outlawed the study of Torah. The Jews, however, didn’t let the mandate stop them and they defied the decree. They studied Torah in secret. If one of the Greek officials passed by, Jewish children would quickly put away their books and pull out a toy, the spinning top, and pretend to play games.
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What do the Four Letters on the Dreidel Mean?
Each side of the dreidel has a different Hebrew letter, GIMEL, HEY, NUN, and SHIN, which represents the first letters of a Hebrew phrase, Nes Gadol Haya Sham or “A Great Miracle Happened There”. In Israel, the last letter of the dreidel is PAY instead of SHIN, to represent the phrase “A Great Miracle Happened Here“.
What does Nes Gadol Haya Sham Mean?
The word “Nes” in Hebrew means miracle, and Nes starts with the letter NUN.
The word “Gadol” in Hebrew means big or great, and Gadol starts with the letter GIMEL.
The word “Haya” is a past-tense verb meaning was or happened. Haya starts with HEY.
THe word “Sham” in Hebrew is an adverb meaning there. Sham starts with the letter SHIN.
Nes Gadol Haya Sham Pronunciation
NEHs GAHdOHL HAIyAH ShAHm (POH)
Nes: The word rhymes with mess.
Gadol: It’s a two-syllable word. “GA” has the same sound as GAUze or GAWk. “DOL” sounds like Dole, the pineapple company.
Haya: The first syllable sounds exactly like the word “Hi.” The second syllable sounds like the beginning of the word “YAwn”.
Sham: The word rhymes with Tom. The first two letters make the “SH” sound like “SHH” be quiet.
Poh: This word sounds like the first syllable in the word POkemon.
Nes Gadol Haya Sham in Hebrew:
נֵס גָדוֹל הָיָה שָׁם
נס גדול היה שם
How Do You Play Dreidel?
Any number of people can play a game of dreidel, it’s an all-inclusive kind of game. The most important part is finding the right space to play. All of the players should sit around a large, smooth, flat surface like a kitchen or dining table or everyone can sit in a circle on wood floors. You want to make sure that you are doing it on a durable surface and not somewhere delicate; for example, you wouldn’t want your glass table to scratch. Also, carpet isn’t conducive to spinning. The space needs to be wide enough that as the dreidel spins, it stays on the surface and doesn’t fall. That’s why, for example, using a small end table or placing a magazine on carpet as a smooth surface substitute is not ideal.
You’ll need a few items in order to play the dreidel game — a dreidel for one — and an assortment of game pieces. These can be anything from pennies to dried beans to M&Ms to chocolate gelt. Whichever you choose, you will need about 10-15 pieces per player.
Dreidel Game Rules
- Before the game begins, someone should divvy up the pieces so each player has 10-15 game pieces.
- Each player puts one piece back into the center to create the “pot.”
- Everyone takes a turn spinning the dreidel and the person with the highest spin goes first. Officially, NUN is highest, then GIMEL, HEY, and SHIN. However, you are more than welcome to make up your own terms. Play moves clockwise.
- When it is your turn, spin the dreidel once. Depending on the side the dreidel lands on, you give or get game pieces from the center “pot.”
- If you run out of pieces, you have lost.
- The game ends when there is one player left.
ג – GIMEL
If you spin a GIMEL, you get all the gelt. Everything in the center pot is yours. In Yiddish, GIMEL means “gantz” or everything and with the English mnemonic, you “get all.”
ה – HEY
The player gets half the pot if the dreidel lands on HEY. If there is an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player takes half of the total plus one. HEY means “halb” or half in Yiddish. The English mnemonic is also “half.”
נ – NUN
If the dreidel lands on NUN, you do nothing. NUN means “nisht” or “nothing” in Yiddish. The English mnemonic is “nothing” as well.
שׁ – SHIN
A spin landing on SHIN means the player must put a piece into the center pot. SHIN means “shtel” or “put in” in Yiddish or “share” for the English mnemonic.
Spin a Dreidel Upside Down
*Hannukah Party Trick Alert* Hold the dreidel upside down so that your thumb and middle finger are on either side of the thin stem (top) of the dreidel. Flick your thumb in a snapping motion against your middle finger and watch as the dreidel pops up out of your hand and hopefully lands on it’s stem and starts to spin. It’ll take a little bit of practice to nail it down, but once you do, everyone at your Hanukkah gathering will want you to teach them how to spin a dreidel upside down too.
Virtual Dreidel Game
If you can’t play dreidel in person with your friends and family this year, there is a virtual dreidel game online that you can play. There isn’t too much pizzazz and it’s pretty basic, but it could be a way to play a quick game with the people you love for the sake of tradition.