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The Legend Behind The Hanukkah Dreidel

The game of dreidel, played most often around Hanukkah, was invented as a way for Jewish children to hide that they were studying the Torah during a time in which doing so was punishable by death.

Why It's Important

Perhaps you've joined in a game of dreidel - you spin the top, and depending where it lands, collect your riches (usually in the form of chocolate candy, called gelt). But like so many holiday traditions, the modern form of the game has strayed far from its origins. The letters on the four sides of a dreidel — nun, gimel, hey, and shin — form an acronym for the Hebrew phrase, "A great miracle happened there." The miracle refers to the ancient story of the candles in a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. After driving out the soldiers of the Seleucid Empire, which had outlawed Judaism, the Maccabean Jews found that they had enough oil to light the candles in the menorah for only one day. However, it's said that the candles burned for a full eight days, giving the Jews time to produce more oil. This is the story of Hanukkah. The dreidel is said to date back to that same time, as a cover for Jewish children trying to study. According to the Jewish website Chabad.org, "By playing dreidel during Chanukah we are reminded of the courage of those brave children."

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Why People Should Know

Too often, the origins of holiday traditions get lost in modern times. Why do we hunt for eggs on Easter? Or hang stockings on Christmas? Understanding the history of a holiday, whether or not you observe it, will help you appreciate the meaning behind the tradition. And in a month filled with the the stress of family gatherings and last-minute shopping and crowded airports, it's important to remember that there is, in fact, a reason to celebrate.

Editors' Picks: Our Favorite Videos About Hanukkah

Could You Play Major League Dreidel?

See some seriously skiller dreidel players in action.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. The word "dreidel" comes from the Yiddish word "dreyen," which means "to spin." 00:49

  2. According to Jewish legend, the dreidel was originally used as a ploy to fool Greek soldiers. 01:39

  3. Major League Dreidel has hosted tournaments in multiple cities. 03:29

How To Play Dreidel

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5 Interesting Facts About Hanukkah

Get to know the basics of the Jewish holiday.

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