Entry in progress—B.P.
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 when the teacher would hear 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.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
Etymology: < Yiddish dreydl, < Middle High German dræ(je)n to turn (German drehen).
Chiefly N. Amer.
a. A four-sided spinning-top, with one of the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, he, and shin on each face, used chiefly in a children’s game played esp. at the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.
b. The game, resembling put-and-take, played with this top.
1934 S. Mazer Yossele’s Holiday 50 The belfer will soon be here with the dredles. Your father left you Hanukkah money, and you may buy one.
1940 B. M. Edidin Jewish Holidays & Festivals vi. 97 The younger children are playing trendel or dreidel. This is a four-winged spinning top with four Hebrew letters.
Jewish Ceremonial Institutions and Customs
By William Rosenau
Baltimore, MD: The Freidenwald Company
The Trendel is spun, and the letter, which comes to view as the Trendel falls, indicates the gain or loss of the player. The letters are used as initials of German words. 3 stands for “ N,” of “ Nichts,” and indicates that the player takes nothing out of ...
2 January 1906, Daily People (New York, NY), “Chanukah,” pg. 2, col. 7:
The most popular game in Germany, Austria and Poland was, and is yet in some parts, the “Trendel” (from the German “drehen"). It is played with a revolving die on the four sides of which are the Hebrew letters corresponding with G, H, N, and S. In Hebrew, those are the initial letters of the sentence “Nes Godol Hoyo Shum” (a great miracle happened there). Each player puts a certain amount into a pool, and then spins the die, which is pierced by a pivot. When the die falls showing the letter G on top the person who played takes the whole stakes, the letter indicating “ganz.” The letter H is “halb”—half; N is for “nichts”—nothings, and S for “stell”—add.
29 November 1907, Young Israel, “Hanukah Ceremonies and Customs,” pg. 15, cols. 1-2:
Four Hebrew letters are found on the four sides of the Trendel—one on each side. They are N. G. H. S. and they stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Shum. “a great miracle happened there.”
The “Trendel,” or Tee-totum, will again be used by the children, as well as by the adults, to spend an evening or two pleasantly. The “Trendel” is a top with four sides, and is made either of wood or metal. Some hold, that it is derived from the German “drachen” (to turn). Others claim, that it comes from traendel,” to then, in turn,spin the Trendel and the letter exposed to view, as the Trendel falls, tells their fate. “Nun” means “nichts,”, and indicates that the player takes nothing out of the pot. The “Gimel” stands for “Ganz,” and shows that the entire pot belongs to the player. The “He” means “Halb,” and tells that only half the pot belongs to the lot of the player. The “Shin” signifies “Stellen,” and orders the players to put another portion into the pot. This game is played for the most part among German Jews, although its origin is neither Jewish nor German.
22 December 1916, The Jewish Child, pg. 4 (it reads page 2, but it follows page 3):
A CHANUKAH DREIDLE
“When I was a little boy in Russia,” began Grandpa, just as she was hoping he would, “we didn’t have such toy menorahs. The Chanukah toy we played with was the ‘dreidle,’ which is a kind of top. When you spun it, it went round and round, and flew about the table until, gradually, it would begin to slow down and finally fall on one side. That was the time we watched it, because a great deal depended on the side it should fall on. We might lose or win, goodness knows how many candies or nuts or apples if the ‘dreidle’ wanted us to.”
“What do you mean, Grandpa, “you’re teasing!”
“No,” said Grandpa. “That’s just how it was. You see, there was a Hebrew letter on each side of the dreidle, on one side ‘Nun,’ on the other side ‘Gimmel,’ on the third side ‘Heh,’ and on the fourth one ‘Shin.’ These words stood for the words ‘Nes Gadohl Haya Shorn’ (A Great Miracle Was Wroug’ht There.) It refers to the time after Judah the Mac-cabee had conquered the Syrians, and driven them out of Jerusalem. The people cleaned and repaired and purified the Temple from all the harm that the heathens had done to it, and they gathered to relight the lamps of the Menorah, and re-dedicate the Temple to God. But what did they find? Only one tiny bottle of pure oil—all the rest had been desecrated. And the oil in this flask would only last for one day, while to prepare more oil properly would take eight days. And they had hoped so much to rekindle the everlasting light in the eight lamps of the holy candlestick! Still, they tried lighting the lamps, just the same. And that little, precious flaskful burned for eight days until the fresh oil was ready. That’s why we say ‘Nes Gadohl Hayah Shorn.’
“But we boys gave the four letters own own meaning. ‘Nun,’ was ‘Nichts’ (nothing). ‘Gimmel’ was ‘Gar’ (meaning ‘all’ ); ‘Heh’ we made ‘Halb’ (half) and ‘Shin,’ ‘Stelle’ (Put one on). So that when a boy took his turn and spun the dreidle, he looked eagerly to see which letter was uppermost when it fell. If the letter ‘Nun’, was on top, it meant that he had won nothing. On the other hand, if ‘Gimmel’ were on top, it meant that he had won all the candies and nuts in the pool. If the ‘Heh’ side was up, he won half the ‘nasherai.’ But ‘Shin’ was the most unlucky of all, because that not only meant that he hadn’t won anything, but that he would have to put one of his own candies into the pool.”
“Out would come our ‘dreidlach’—and the candy and fruit and pieces of honeycake we had brought from home or else bought (Col. 3—ed.) for our ‘Chanukah gelt’!”
20 December 1922, Jewish Daily News, (New York, NY), “A Child’s Chanukah” by Dr. Julius H. Greenhouse, pg. 8, cols. 7-8:
The Trendel was the most absorbing game, although it did not require much application. The game itself is rather simple. The toy has four sides, on each of which a Hebrew letter is inscribed. The four letters used are Nun, Gimel, He, and Shin. The practical use of these letters, however, was to indicate the gain or loss of the player, fro Gimmel meant “Ganz,” all the money went to the winner. He stood for “Halb” and the winner received only half of the money. Nun meant “Nichts,” nothing won. Shin meant “Stell,” when the player had to add to the score. This was the only occasion when t was permitted to play games for money, and the Chanukah-Gelt accumulated was frequently lost in one evening.