DECEMBER 14, 2017 – I have come to the conclusion that the dreidel is not merely a toy to help pass the time while the Hanukkah candles are burning. It may not be stretching the truth to say that the dreidel – the little top – is the basis of one of the most important inventions of modern times: the gyroscope.
In the 18th century, a British scientist was fascinated by the ability of the spinning top to remain level despite the shifting of the support underneath. He believed that the top could provide an artificial horizon that would be useful for sailors to find their way in shifting seas. Eventually, the French scientist Leon Foucault coined the term “gyroscope” from the Greek terms gyros to spin, and scopein, “to see.”
Why this science lesson in our discussion of Hanukkah? Because the dreidel is a reminder of our people’s ability to retain our balance despite the shifting circumstances in which we live.
In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye asks, “And how do we keep our balance?” We have been able to do so, and to find our way, from land to land and age to age, always maintaining our equilibrium. Our moral compass has been our devotion to Torah and tradition. The gyroscope-dreidel helps us to see the world and our place in it.
The dreidel is, in its essence, not a toy, but a gambling device. It is not a game, but an accessory, serving the same function as dice. It suggests that we believe much of what happens to us is not predetermined, but is the result of random events. On the surface, the presence of the dreidel contradicts the traditional message of Hanukkah, that God will intervene on the side of right and protect his faithful from any calamity.
The four Hebrew letters on the traditional dreidel – Nun, Gimel, Hei, Shin – stand for the Yiddish words that are the instructions for the simple gambling game that is played with the dreidel. At some point in our history, the dreidel was modified in an attempt to give it a more pious meaning. The four letters were reinterpreted as standing for Hebrew words: Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “A Great Miracle Happened There.”
If it were indeed a miracle that allowed the Maccabees their great victory, then why emblazon this on a gambling toy, one that relies on the element of chance to function? My view is that with the great miracle of Hanukkah, God did not violate any of the laws of nature, but the Maccabees prevailed through their clever tactics, their determination, and their faith in their cause. Our world is one in which both randomness and predictability are intertwined.
The dreidel encompasses both these principles of our natural world, and places them squarely in a religious framework. The Maccabees could not have fought, and the dreidel could never balance on its single leg, were it not for the constancy of the laws of nature that support all creation. Despite the randomness of events, human beings can rely on the sun to rise and set every day, for our hearts to beat, for birds to sing, and the heavens to ring out with thunder and be illuminated by flashes of lightning and myriads of stars.
The dreidel is a deceptively simple symbol, one that is worthy of contemplation to allow us to unlock its subtle and even hidden meanings. Speaking of the Torah, as the Talmudic sage Ben Bag-Bag said, “Turn it and turn it, for all is in it.”
So too, the dreidel: We shall spin it and spin it, and see what we may learn.
Rabbi David Kudan is the spiritual leader of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody.