Why you should care
The dreidel became a staple of this Jewish holiday through cultural assimilation, which the Maccabees probably wouldn’t have been thrilled about.
“Dreidel dreidel dreidel,” happy voices croon, “I made it out of clay. And when it’s dried and ready, oh, dreidel we will play.” The cheerful tune fills living rooms of American Jews during the eight nights of Hanukkah. Ready to gamble the evening’s prized possession, chocolate gelt, children spin small wooden tops as the salty aroma of potato latkes wafts in from the kitchen. Each player spins the dreidel once per turn, either giving or taking a piece of gelt from the “pot” based on which side faces up when the dreidel falls over and lands.
Whenever schools need to find a Jewish song for a holiday production, they tend to throw in the infamous dreidel song, notes Jonathan Jaffe, a reform rabbi at Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, New York. The dreidel has become the “main holiday motif” by which American Jews “introduce themselves” to the inter-religious world, but the four-sided spinning top game isn’t actually connected to the historical roots of Hanukkah. In fact, some scholars say the dreidel isn’t even of Jewish origin.
Today’s Jewish American celebration of Hanukkah is almost uniquely celebrated through external influences, and later additions have become cherished customs.
Alternate theories abound, but the game evolved from a game called “totum” or “teetotum,” often played in England and Ireland around Christmastime, writes David Golinkin, a conservative rabbi and professor at Jerusalem’s Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, in an article for the My Jewish Learning website. By 1720, the game was known as “T-totum” or “teetotum,” and by 1801, the four letters on the top stood for English words. There was a German equivalent too, where the spinning top was called “torrel” or “trungl” in German, and “fargl,” “varfl” or “dreidel” in Yiddish. This spread continued: An Eastern European game emerged, based on the German version. And when Hebrew was revived as a spoken language, some called the spinning top a “sevivon.”
Put simply, the game of chocolate gambling that American Jews know and love was a product of cultural assimilation, which is ironic, because Hanukkah’s history details a civil war between two factions of Jews fighting over just that: assimilation.
Some frame Hanukkah as the commemoration of the Maccabees’ rebellion against King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Seleucid Empire. In the 170s B.C., Antiochus IV, the Seleucid king, issued orders damaging the temple at Jerusalem and banning Jewish practices — under threat of death, according to Hellenistic History and Culture, edited by Peter Green. The Maccabees recaptured the temple in Jerusalem, which had been converted for pagan worship. Legend later ascribes the eight days of Hanukkah to a small amount of oil that miraculously burned for eight days, as is recounted in Religions of the United States in Practice, edited by Colleen McDannell.
But to Jaffe, Hanukkah is a story of a civil war between two factions of Jews — one more moderate (the central priesthood in Jerusalem), and another more fundamentalist (the Maccabees). The more zealous Maccabees felt the central priesthood and political leadership were too heavily influenced by the Hellenistic Assyrians, Jaffe says. The Maccabees ultimately won out, but not before a bloody battle between Jews.
Hanukkah’s link to the oil miracle also is questionable, Jaffe says, noting how the eight days actually come from the eight-day-long fall harvest holiday of Sukkot, which was essential to asking for rain. Once the Maccabees regained the temple, they basically did a “do-over” of the holiday they had missed, fearing drought. The idea of oil lasting longer than it should have is borrowed from elsewhere in the Bible, Jaffe says, noting how Elisha, disciple of the prophet Elijah, multiplied a single vial of oil for a starving woman, so she could sell them and earn a living. It wasn’t a stretch to think that if God had done it once, God could do it again.
Of course, there are myriad ways to tell any religious story. “Generations of Sunday school teachers have turned Hanukkah into the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire,” wrote David Brooks in a 2009 op-ed for The New York Times. “Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses. Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.”
But there is one point on which everyone agrees: Today’s Jewish American celebration of Hanukkah is almost uniquely celebrated through external influences, and later additions have become cherished customs: potato latkes from Poland, alongside dreidels from England and Ireland. To add to the irony, Jaffe says Israeli Jews traditionally exchanged presents on Rosh Hashana and Passover, not on Hanukkah. Israeli Jews later learned about gift-giving on Hanukkah through their American Jewish friends, who had adopted the practice from their Christian friends. Now, gift-giving on Hanukkah is common in Israel (though not in orthodox circles).
So, really, the Hanukkah we celebrate today makes no sense, Jaffe says. But he values it for illustrating that religion is not dictated from the top down, and rather is a “hodgepodge of what is meaningful to people at various times.”
Jewish fighters of centuries past might take a darker view. “The Maccabees would hate everything we do to celebrate Hanukkah, and would equally detest most of us who celebrate Hanukkah at all,” Jaffe says. The whole debate evokes a tension inherent to the centuries-long Jewish story: balancing assimilation with the need to resist it enough to preserve a culture that’s often under threat.
In Jaffe’s eyes, Judaism is “sustained through the maintenance of a porous membrane, which allows us to retain a central identity while incorporating the best ideas and aspects of wherever we go.” The semi-random mishmash that is Jewish food is a perfect example. What’s the thread, really? “It’s just the greatest hits of all the places we’ve lived,” he says. A whizzing dreidel too is no exception.
Correction: This story originally attributed an oil-related miracle to the prophet Elijah, when in fact it was his disciple Elisha who multiplied a single vial of oil. We regret the error.