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A dreidel (Yiddish: דרײדל dreydl plural: dreydlekh, Hebrew: סביבון sevivon) is a four-sided spinning top, played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The dreidel is a Jewish variant on the teetotum, a gambling toy found in many European cultures.
Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin), which together form the acronym for "נס גדול היה שם" (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – "a great miracle happened there"). These letters also form a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: Nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht ("nothing"), Hei stands for halb ("half"), Gimel for gants ("all"), and Shin for shtel ayn ("put in"). In Israel, the fourth side of most dreidels is inscribed with the letter פ (Pei), rendering the acronym, נס גדול היה פה, Nes Gadol Hayah Poh—"A great miracle happened here" referring to the miracle occurring in the land of Israel. Some stores in Haredi neighborhoods sell the ש dreidels.
According to Jewish tradition, when the Jews were in caves learning Torah, hiding from the Greeks, dreidel became a popular game to play. Legend has it that whenever the teacher heard the Greek soldiers approaching, he would instruct the children to hide their torah scrolls and take out their dreidels instead.
The Yiddish word "dreydl" comes from the word "dreyen" ("to turn", compare to "drehen", meaning the same in German). The Hebrew word "sevivon" comes from the root "SBB" ("to turn") and was invented by Itamar Ben-Avi (the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) when he was 5 years old. Hayyim Nahman Bialik used a different word, "kirkar" (from the root "KRKR" – "to spin"), in his poems, but it was not adopted into spoken Hebrew.
Some rabbis ascribe symbolic significance to the markings on the dreidel. One commentary, for example, connects the four letters with the four nations to which the House of Judah was historically subject—Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. While not mandated (a mitzvah) for Hanukkah (the only mandated mitzvot are lighting candles and saying the full hallel), spinning the dreidel is a traditional game played during the holiday.
Each player begins with an equal number of game pieces (usually 10–15). The game pieces can be any object, such as chocolate gelt, pennies, or raisins.
These rules are comparable to the rules for a classic 4-sided teetotum, where the letters A, D, N and T form a mnemonic for the rules of the game, aufer (take), depone (put), nihil (nothing), and totum (all). Similarly, the Hebrew letters on a dreidel may be taken as a mnemonic for the game rules in Yiddish.
Childhood enjoyment of dreidels has led to interest in collecting them in adulthood. Jewish institutions such as the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University and Temple Emanu-El in New York, house dreidel collections, as do museums such as the Spinning Top and Yo-Yo Museum in Burlington, Wisconsin.
Dreidel is now a spoof competitive sport in North America. Major League Dreidel (MLD), founded in New York City in 2007, hosts dreidel tournaments during the holiday of Hanukkah. In MLD tournaments the player with the longest Time of Spin (TOS) is the winner. MLD is played on a Spinagogue, the official spinning stadium of Major League Dreidel. Pamskee was the 2007 MLD Champion. Virtual Dreidel was the 2008 MLD Champion. In 2009, Major League Dreidel launched a game version of the Spinagogue.
In 2009, Good Morning America published a story on Dreidel Renaissance reporting on the rising popularity of the dreidel. Dreidel games that have come out on the market since 2007 include No Limit Texas Dreidel, a cross between traditional dreidel and Texas Hold'em poker, invented by a Judaica company called ModernTribe. Other new dreidel games include Staccabees and Maccabees.
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