Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel!
By Rabbi Label Lam
I can recall shrinking in shame when in public high school choir we
would sing the one token Jewish song, “Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel”. It
always seemed embarrassingly unsophisticated and who amongst us knew it
wasn’t? So now, years later, maybe we can indulge ourselves with a brief
appreciation of just how not silly that little dreidel is.
Our sages say, “If we are not prophets, we are the children of prophets.”
That means that if loyal Jews over the course of many generations have
engaged in a given practice, there must be some extremely deep reason. Any
thing deemed “classic” usually has an appeal to all ages and types. Both a
child and an elder must be able to appreciate it on his own level. So it
is with the dreidel.
On the most infantile level it is a spinning top that captures the child’s
imagination by its color and gyro abilities. The next oldest child may be
fascinated by the opportunity to play a game and collect nuts and/or
pennies. That’s great. A slightly more mature youngster may already begin
to appreciate the letters on the dreidel, NUN, GIMEL, HEY, SHIN. Kids
spend months in kindergarten learning to distinguish between a NUN and a
GIMEL. It’s a little like the difference between a slightly high-heeled
shoe and a flat heel. It takes some training to spot it quickly enough to
read well. Then the budding scholar will report that the letters stand
for, NUN-Nes, GIMEL-Gadol, HEY-Haya, SHIN-Sham: “A great miracle happened
there!” How might the seasoned scholar view this simple child’s game?
The Bnei Yisaschar teaches that the letters on the dreidel hint to the
entirety of Jewish History. Represented there are the strategic forces of
the four exiles. What is an exile? How does it begin? When does it end?
The Jews are sitting in Israel with a Temple and a G-d and all is well
until we start to wonder if maybe the idolatry of Babylonia is not just a
bit more spicy and fun. Before long this curiosity becomes a national
obsession till a horde of idol worshippers descend upon us and dominates
for a time until we “get it”.
What does it mean to “get it”? Someone told me that his father once caught
him smoking in the garage. He wisely did not take the cigarettes away? He
bought a carton and made him smoke continually until his face turned green
and he was coughing violently. After that he never wanted another
When the dreidel drops, one culture asserts its influence and a class in
exile “X” has begun. NUN is for Nefesh, the soul. The Babylonians who
destroyed the first temple tried to enforce that Jews should bow to their
idols in order to contaminate the soul of the people. The end of that 70
year period was dominated by the Persians and it was the wicked Haman’s
wish to destroy every man woman and child physically and therefore the
next letter is GIMEL, for Goof, the body. The letter SHIN or SIN as it can
be pronounced when the dot is on the left-side, stands for Sechel-
Intellect. The Greeks wished to offer a competitive culture with the
rigors of science and literature to replace Torah learning and the
catharsis of sport and theatre to supplant prayer and kindliness. They
were largely successful at seducing the minds of many a Jew till the
heroes of the Chanukah story prevailed. Then we confront the letter HEY-
which is for HaKol, everything. Rome, Edom introduced nothing new. They
incorporated the worst of the others. Therefore for the duration of this
brutal 2000 year old exile we have met the likes of the Spanish
Inquisition where the Jewish Soul was tested with the demand to be
obedient to some idolatrous form. Then there have been the Hitler types
that have wanted to eliminate any breathing Jew. Now we face with
the “enlightenment” an exile of assimilation whereby the nuances on the op-
ed pages are promoted beyond the wisdom of our sages and so we melt into
It’s no mistake that those letters add up to 358 which spells NACHASH, the
primordial enemy, and also MOSHIACH, the climax of history. If only that
point on the bottom (that’s us) loyally aligns with the miraculous “Hand
on High” and avoids toppling again... Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel!
DvarTorah, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and Torah.org.