Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights and Feast of Dedication, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire of the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar.
The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched Menorah or Hanukiah, one additional light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. The typical Menorah consists of eight branches with an additional raised branch. The extra light is called a shamash (Hebrew: שמש, “attendant”) and is given a distinct location, usually above or below the rest. The purpose of the shamash is to have a light available for practical use, as using the Hanukkah lights themselves for purposes other than publicizing and meditating on the Hanukkah is forbidden.
The name “Hanukkah” derives from the Hebrew verb “חנך”, meaning “to dedicate”. On Hanukkah, the Jews regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple.
- The name can be broken down into חנו כ”ה, “[they] rested [on the] twenty-fifth”, referring to the fact that the Jews ceased fighting on the 25th day of Kislev, the day on which the holiday begins.
- חנוכה (Hanukkah) is also the Hebrew acronym for ח נרות והלכה כבית הלל — “Eight candles, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel”. This is a reference to the disagreement between two rabbinical schools of thought — the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai — on the proper order in which to light the Hanukkah flames. Shammai opined that eight candles should be lit on the first night, seven on the second night, and so on down to one on the last night (because the miracle was greatest on the first day). Hillel argued in favor of starting with one candle and lighting an additional one every night, up to eight on the eighth night (because the miracle grew in greatness each day). Jewish law adopted the position of Hillel.
Maccabees, Mishna and Talmud
The story of Hanukkah, along with its laws and customs, is entirely missing in the Mishna apart from several passing references (Bikkurim 1:6, Rosh HaShanah 1:3, Taanit 2:10, Megillah 3:4 and 3:6, Moed Katan 3:9, and Bava Kama 6:6).
Rav Nissim Gaon postulates in his Hakdamah Le’mafteach Hatalmud that information on the holiday was so commonplace that the Mishna felt no need to explain it. A modern-day scholar Reuvein Margolies suggests that as the Mishnah was redacted after the Bar Kochba revolt, its editors were reluctant to include explicit discussion of a holiday celebrating another relatively recent revolt against a foreign ruler, for fear of antagonizing the Romans.
The story of Hanukkah is preserved in the books of the First and Second Maccabees. These books are not part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible); they are Jewish apocryphal books instead. The miracle of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud, committed to writing about 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees. 
The Gemara (Talmud), in tractate Shabbat, page 21b, focuses on Shabbat candles and moves to Hanukkah candles and says that after the forces of Antiochus IV had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, with enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days (the time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready).
The Talmud presents three options:
- The law requires only one light each night per household,
- A better practice is to light one light each night for each member of the household
- The most preferred practice is to vary the number of lights each night.
Except in times of danger, the lights were to be placed outside one’s door, on the opposite side of the Mezuza, or in the window closest to the street. Rashi, in a note to Shabbat 21b, says their purpose is to publicize the miracle. The blessings for Hanukkah lights are discussed in tractate Succah, p. 46a.
Narrative of Josephus
The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus narrates in his book Jewish Antiquities XII, how the victorious Judas Maccabeus ordered lavish yearly eight-day festivities after rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem that had been profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Josephus does not say the festival was called Hannukkah but rather the “Festival of Lights”:
- “Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the cityBethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.”
Other ancient sources
The story of Hanukkah is alluded to in the book of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. The eight-day rededication of the temple is described in 1 Maccabees 4:36 et seq, though the name of the festival and the miracle of the lights do not appear here. A story similar in character, and obviously older in date, is the one alluded to in 2 Maccabees 1:18 et seq according to which the relighting of the altar fire byNehemiah was due to a miracle which occurred on the 25th of Kislev, and which appears to be given as the reason for the selection of the same date for the rededication of the altar by Judah Maccabee.
Another source is the Megillat Antiochus. This work (also known as “Megillat HaHasmonaim”, “Megillat Hanukkah” or “Megillat Yevanit”) is in both Aramaic and Hebrew; the Hebrew version is a literal translation from the Aramaic original. Recent scholarship dates it to somewhere between the 2nd and 5th Centuries, probably in the 2nd century, with the Hebrew dating to the 7th century. It was published for the first time in Mantua in 1557. Saadia Gaon, who translated it into Arabic in the 9th century, ascribed it to the Maccabees themselves, disputed by some, since it gives dates as so many years before the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. The Hebrew text with an English translation can be found in the Siddur of Philip Birnbaum.
In the Christian Greek Scriptures, it is stated that Jesus was at the Jerusalem Temple during “the Feast of Dedication and it was winter”, in John 10:22–23. The Greek term that is used is “the renewals” (Greek ta engkainia τὰ ἐγκαίνια). Josephus refers to the festival as “lights.”
Story of Hanukkah
Judea was part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt until 200 BCE when King Antiochus III the Great of Syria defeated King Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt at the Battle of Panium. Judea became at that moment part of the Seleucid Empire of Syria. King Antiochus III the Great wanting to conciliate his new Jewish subjects guaranteed their right to “live according to their ancestral customs” and to continue to practice their religion in the Temple of Jerusalem. However in 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the son of Antiochus III invaded Judea, ostensibly at the request of the sons of Tobias. The Tobiads, who led theHellenizing Jewish faction in Jerusalem, were expelled to Syria around 170 BCE when the high priest Onias and his pro-Egyptian faction wrested control from them. The exiled Tobiads lobbied Antiochus IV Epiphanes to recapture Jerusalem. As the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us:
- “The king being thereto disposed beforehand, complied with them, and came upon the Jews with a great army, and took their city by force, and slew a great multitude of those that favored Ptolemy, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple, and put a stop to the constant practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation for three years and six months.”
When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was looted and services stopped, Judaism was outlawed. In 167 BCE Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. He banned brit milah (circumcision) and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple (the sacrifice of pigs to the Greek gods was standard ritual practice in the Ancient Greek religion).
Antiochus’s actions provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”). By 166 BCE Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event. Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, unadulterated and undefiled pure olive oil with the seal of the kohen gadol (high priest) was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. The story goes that one flask was found with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.
The version of the story in 1 Maccabees states that an eight-day celebration of songs and sacrifices was proclaimed upon re-dedication of the altar, and makes no mention of the miracle of the oil.
These competed violently over who would be the High Priest, with traditionalists with Hebrew/Aramaic names like Onias contesting with Hellenizing High Priests with Greek names like Jason and Menelaus. In particular Jason’s Hellenistic reforms would prove to be a decisive factor leading to eventual conflict within the ranks of Judaism. Other authors point to possible socioeconomic reasons in addition to the religious reasons behind the civil war.
What began in many respects as a civil war escalated when the Hellenistic kingdom of Syria sided with the Hellenizing Jews in their conflict with the traditionalists. As the conflict escalated, Antiochus took the side of the Hellenizers by prohibiting the religious practices the traditionalists had rallied around. This may explain why the king, in a total departure from Seleucid practice in all other places and times, banned a traditional religion.
Hanukkah is celebrated with a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday, some are family-based and others communal. There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals.
Hanukkah is not a “Sabbath-like” holiday, and there is no obligation to refrain from activities that are forbidden on the Sabbath, as specified in theShulkhan Arukh. Adherents go to work as usual, but may leave early in order to be home to kindle the lights at nightfall. There is no religious reason for schools to be closed, although, in Israel, schools close from the second day for the whole week of Hanukkah. Many families exchange small gifts each night, such as books or games. Fried foods (such as latke potato pancakes, jelly doughnut sufganiyot) are eaten to commemorate the importance of oil during the celebration of Hanukkah.
Kindling the Hanukkah lights
Each night, throughout the 8 day holiday, a candle or oil-based light, is lit. As a universally practiced “beautification” (hiddur mitzvah) of the mitzvah, the number of lights lit is increased by one each night. An extra light called a shamash, meaning “attendant” or “sexton,” is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher, lower, or to the side of the others. The purpose of the extra light is to adhere to the prohibition, specified in the Talmud (Tracate Shabbat 21b–23a), against using the Hanukkah lights for anything other than publicizing and meditating on the Hanukkah miracle. This differs from Sabbath candles which are meant to be used for illumination and lighting. Hence, if one were to need extra illumination on Hanukkah, the shamash candle would be available and one would avoid using the prohibited lights. Some light theshamash candle first and then use it to light the others. So all together, including the shamash, two lights are lit on the first night, three on the second and so on, ending with nine on the last night, for a total of 44 (36, excluding the shamash).
The lights can be candles or oil lamps. Electric lights are sometimes used and are acceptable in places where open flame is not permitted, such as a hospital room, or for the very elderly and infirm. Most Jewish homes have a special candelabrum referred to as either a chanukkiah (the modern Israeli term), or a menorah (the traditional classical name), or oil lamp holder for Hanukkah, which holds eight lights plus the additional shamash light. Since the 1970s the worldwide Chabad Hasidic movement has initiated public menorah lightnings in open public places in many countries.
The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not for the “lighting of the house within”, but rather for the “illumination of the house without,” so that passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle (i.e. the triumph of the few over the many and of the pure over the impure). Accordingly, lamps are set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street. It is customary amongst some Ashkenazi Jews to have a separate menorah for each family member (customs vary), whereas most Sephardi Jews light one for the whole household. Only when there was danger of antisemitic persecution were lamps supposed to be hidden from public view, as was the case in Persia under the rule of the Zoroastrians, or in parts of Europe before and during World War II. However, most Hasidic groups light lamps near an inside doorway, not necessarily in public view. According to this tradition, the lamps are placed on the opposite side from the mezuzah, so that when one passes through the door he is surrounded by the holiness of mitzvot (the commandments).
Generally women are exempt in Jewish law from time-bound positive commandments, however the Talmud requires that women engage in the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles “for they too were involved in the miracle.” In practice in Orthodox households]] only the males in the household are obligated to light the menorah.
Hanukkah lights should burn for at least one half hour after it gets dark. The custom of the Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer 1720 – 1797) observed by many residents of Jerusalem as the custom of the city, is to light at sundown, although most Hasidim light later, even in Jerusalem. Many Hasidic Rebbes light much later, because they fulfill the obligation of publicizing the miracle by the presence of their Hasidim when they kindle the lights.
Inexpensive small wax candles sold for Hanukkah burn for approximately half an hour, so on most days this requirement can be safely ignored.
Friday night presents a problem, however. Since candles may not be lit on the Shabbat itself, the candles must be lit before sunset. However, they must remain lit until the regular it is time for you to use longer candles, or the traditional oil lamps. In keeping with the above-stated prohibition, the Hanukkah menorah is lit first, followed by the Shabbat candles which signify its onset.
Blessings over the candles
Typically three blessings (brachot; singular: brachah) are recited during this eight-day festival when lighting the candles:
On the first night of Hanukkah, Jews recite all three blessings; on all subsequent nights, they recite only the first two.
The blessings are said before or after the candles are lit depending on tradition. On the first night of Hanukkah one light (candle or oil) is lit on the right side of the Menorah, on the following night a second light is placed to the left of the first, and so on, proceeding from right to left over the eight nights. On each night, the leftmost candle is lit first, and lighting proceeds from left to right.
For the full text of the blessings, see List of Jewish prayers and blessings: Hanukkah.
During or after the lights are kindled the hymn Hanerot Halalu is recited. There are several differing versions; the version presented here is recited in many Ashkenazic communities:
הנרות הללו אנחנו מדליקים על הנסים ועל הנפלאות ועל התשואות ועל המלחמות שעשית לאבותינו בימים ההם, בזמן הזה על ידי כהניך הקדושים. וכל שמונת ימי חנוכה הנרות הללו קודש הם, ואין לנו רשות להשתמש בהם אלא להאיר אותם בלבד כדי להודות ולהלל לשמך הגדול על נסיך ועל נפלאותיך ועל ישואותיך.
|Hanneirot hallalu anachnu madlikin ‘al hannissim ve’al hanniflaot ‘al hatteshu’ot ve’al hammilchamot she’asita laavoteinu bayyamim haheim, (u)bazzeman hazeh ‘al yedei kohanekha hakkedoshim. Vekhol-shemonat yemei Hanukkah hanneirot hallalu kodesh heim, ve-ein lanu reshut lehishtammesh baheim ella lir’otam bilvad kedei lehodot ul’halleil leshimcha haggadol ‘al nissekha ve’al nifleotekha ve’al yeshu’otekha.||We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except for to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations.|
Each night after the lighting of the candles, the hymn Ma’oz Tzur is sung. The song contains six stanzas. The first and last deal with general themes of divine salvation, and the middle four deal with events of persecution in Jewish history, and praises God for survival despite these tragedies (the exodus from Egypt, the Babylonian captivity, the miracle of the holiday of Purim, the Hasmonean victory), and a longing for the days when Judea will finally triumph over Rome.
After lighting the candles and Ma’oz Tzur, singing other Hanukkah songs is customary in many Jewish homes. Some Hasidic and SephardiJews recite Psalms, such as Psalms 30, Psalms 67, and Psalms 91. In North America and in Israel it is common to exchange presents or give children presents at this time. In addition, many families encourage their children to give tzedakah (charity) in lieu of presents for themselves.
Special additions to daily prayers
An addition is made to the “hoda’ah” (thanksgiving) benediction in the Amidah (thrice-daily prayers), called Al ha-Nissim (“On/about the Miracles”). This addition refers to the victory achieved over the Syrians by the Hasmonean Mattathias and his sons.
“We thank You also for the miraculous deeds and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and the saving acts wrought by You, as well as for the wars which You waged for our ancestors in ancient days at this season. In the days of the Hasmonean Mattathias, son of Johanan the high priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous Greco-Syrian kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the ordinances of Your will, then You in your abundant mercy rose up for them in the time of their trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrong, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah. Both unto Yourself did you make a great and holy name in Thy world, and unto Your people did You achieve a great deliverance and redemption. Whereupon your children entered the sanctuary of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name.”
The Torah is read every day in the shacharit morning services in synagogue, on the first day beginning from Numbers 6:22 (according to some customs, Numbers 7:1), and the last day ending with Numbers 8:4. Since Hanukkah lasts eight days it includes at least one, and sometimes two, Jewish Sabbaths (Saturdays). The weekly Torah portion for the first Sabbath is almost always Miketz, telling of Joseph‘s dream and his enslavement in Egypt. The Haftarah reading for the first Sabbath Hanukkah is Zechariah 2:14 – Zechariah 4:7. When there is a second Sabbath on Hanukkah, the Haftarah reading is from 1Kings 7:40 – 1Kings 7:50.
The Hanukkah menorah is also kindled daily in the synagogue, at night with the blessings and in the morning without the blessings.
The menorah is not lit on the Sabbath, but rather prior to the beginning of the Sabbath at night and not at all during the day. During the Middle Ages “Megillat Antiochus” was read in the Italian synagogues on Hanukkah just as the Book of Esther is read on Purim. It still forms part of the liturgy of the Yemenite Jews.
The last day of Hanukkah is known as Zot Hanukkah, from the verse read on this day in the synagogue Numbers 7:84, Zot Chanukat Hamizbe’ach: “This was the dedication of the altar”). According to the teachings of Kabbalah andHasidism, this day is the final “seal” of the High Holiday season of Yom Kippur, and is considered a time to repent out of love for God. In this spirit, many Hasidic Jews wish each other Gmar chatimah tovah (“may you be sealed totally for good”), a traditional greeting for the Yom Kippur season. It is taught in Hasidic and Kabbalistic literature that this day is particularly auspicious for the fulfillment of prayers.
Many people define major Jewish holidays as those that feature traditional holiday meals, kiddush, holiday candle-lighting, etc., and when all forms of work are forbidden. Only biblical holidays fit this criteria, and Hanukah was instituted some two centuries after the Bible was completed and canonized. Nevertheless, though Hanukah is of rabbinic origin, it is traditionally celebrated in a major and very public fashion. The requirement to position the menorah, or Hanukiah, at the door or window symbolizes the desire to give the Hanukah miracle a high profile.
The classical rabbis downplayed the military and nationalistic dimensions of Hanukkah, and some even interpreted the emphasis upon the story of the miracle oil as a diversion away from the struggle with empires that had led to the disastrous downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans.
Some Jewish historians suggest a different explanation for the rabbinic reluctance to laud the militarism. First, the rabbis wrote after Hasmonean leaders had led Judea into Rome’s grip and so may not have wanted to offer the family much praise. Second, they clearly wanted to promote a sense of dependence on God, urging Jews to look toward the divine for protection. They likely feared inciting Jews to another revolt that might end in disaster, like the 135 C.E. experience.
With the advent of Zionism and the state of Israel, however, these themes were reconsidered. In modern Israel, the national and military aspects of Hanukkah became, once again, more dominant.
In North America especially, Hanukkah gained increased importance with many Jewish families in the final decades of the 20th century, including large numbers of secular Jews, who wanted a Jewish alternative to the Christmas celebrations that often overlap with Hanukkah. Though it was traditional among Ashkenazi Jews to give “gelt” or money coins to children during Hanukkah, in many families this has changed into gifts in order to prevent Jewish children from feeling left out of the Christmas gift giving.
While Hanukkah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday, as indicated by the lack of religious restrictions on work other than a few minutes after lighting the candles, in North America, Hanukkah in the 21st century has taken a place equal to Passover as a symbol of Jewish identity. Both the Israeli and North American versions of Hanukkah emphasize resistance, focusing on some combination of national liberation and religious freedom as the defining meaning of the holiday.
A large number of songs have been written on Hanukkah themes, perhaps more so than for any other Jewish holiday. Some of the best known are “Hanukkiah Li Yesh” (“I Have a Hanukkah Menorah”), “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Little Candles”), “Kad Katan” (“A Small Jug”), “S’vivon Sov Sov Sov” (“Dreidel, Spin and Spin”), Haneirot Halolu” (“These Candles which we light”), “Mi Yimalel” (“Who can Retell”) and “Ner Li, Ner Li” (“I have a Candle”). The most well known in English-speaking countries include “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah”.
There is a custom of eating foods fried or baked in oil (preferably olive oil) to commemorate the miracle of a small flask of oil keeping the flame in the Temple alight for eight days. Traditional foods include potato pancakes, known as latkes in Yiddish, especially amongAshkenazi families. Sephardi, Polish and Israeli families eat jam-filled doughnuts (Yiddish: פאנטשקעס pontshkes), bimuelos (fritters) and sufganiyot which are deep-fried in oil.
Bakeries in Israel have popularized many new types of fillings for sufganiyot besides the traditional strawberry jelly filling, including chocolate cream, vanilla cream, caramel, cappuccino and others. In recent years, downsized, “mini” sufganiyot containing half the calories of the regular, 400-to-600-calorie version have become popular.
There is also a tradition of eating cheese products on Hanukkah recorded in rabbinic literature. This custom is seen as a commemoration of the involvement of Judith and women in the events of Hanukkah.
The dreidel, or sevivon in Hebrew, is a four-sided spinning top that children play with on Hanukkah. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter. These letters are an acronym for the Hebrew words נס גדול היה שם (Nes Gadol Haya Sham, “A great miracle happened there”), referring to the miracle of the oil that took place in the Beit Hamikdash.
On dreidels sold in Israel, the fourth side is inscribed with the letter פ (Pe), rendering the acronym נס גדול היה פה (Nes Gadol Haya Po, “A great miracle happened here”), referring to the fact that the miracle occurred in the land of Israel. Stores in Haredi neighborhoods sell the traditional Shin dreidels as well.
Some Jewish commentators ascribe symbolic significance to the markings on the dreidel. One commentary, for example, connects the four letters with the four exiles to which the nation of Israel was historically subject: Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.
After lighting the Hanukkah menorah, it is customary in many homes to play the dreidel game: Each player starts out with 10 or 15 coins (real or of chocolate), nuts, raisins, candies or other markers, and places one marker in the “pot.” The first player spins the dreidel, and depending on which side the dreidel falls on, either wins a marker from the pot or gives up part of his stash. The code (based on a Yiddish version of the game) is as follows:
- Nun–nisht, “nothing”–nothing happens and the next player spins
- Gimel–gants, “all”–the player takes the entire pot
- Hey–halb, “half”–the player takes half of the pot, rounding up if there is an odd number
- Shin–shtel ayn, “put in”–the player puts one marker in the pot
Another version differs:
- Nun–nim, “take”–the player takes one from the pot
- Gimel–gib, “give”–the player puts one in the pot
- Hey–halb, “half”–the player takes half of the pot, rounding up if there is an odd number
- Shin–shtil, “still” (as in “stillness”)–nothing happens and the next player spins
The game may last until one person has won everything.
The dreidel is believed to commemorate a game devised by the Jews to camouflage the fact that they were studying Torah, which was outlawed by Greeks. The Jews would gather in caves to study, posting a lookout to alert the group to the presence of Greek soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the Jews would hide their scrolls and spin tops, so the Greeks thought they were gambling, not learning.
The historical context may be from the time of the Bar-Kohba war, 132-135 C.E. when the penalty for teaching Torah was death, so decreed by Rome. Others trace the dreidel itself to the children’s top game Teetotum.
- Dreidel gelt (dreidel money): The Eastern European game of dreidel (including the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin) is like the German equivalent of the totum game: N = Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in. In German, the spinning top was called a “torrel” or “trundl,” and in Yiddish it was called a “dreidel,” a “fargl,” a “varfl” [= something thrown], “shtel ein” [= put in], and “gor, gorin” [= all]. When Hebrew was revived as a spoken language, the dreidel was called, among other names, a sevivon, which is the one that caught on.