We are told as children that this “toy” was used by the Maccabees to disguise their clandestine Torah study, despite the distinct prohibition against any Jewish ritual observance by the Greek oppressors. As we know the Maccabees ultimately rose up against all odds and defeated the Greeks, as their successors have done at other times. In fact, some people are taught that each of the four letters stands for four oppressors of the Jewish people: Nun (Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia); Hei (Haman of Persia); Gimel (Gog of Greece); and Shin (Se’ir who was identified with Esav and hence with Rome).
The Nes Gadol, great miracle, Haya Sham that happened there (or Haya Poh, “here” if we are in the Land of Israel) continues to happen for Jews who keep that dreidel spinning! There really are no spectators when it comes to dreidel.
Most people today are caught up in the mundane notion of dreidel as a seemingly benign amusement using the “rules” “put – and – take”, and even tying it to the tradition of giving Ḥanukkah “gelt”, or coins (chocolate or otherwise). While children are the beneficiaries of intentionally simplified stories, trying to make adult sense of this one can lead one through a maze of minhagim (traditions) to a dead end, such as extreme dreidel competitions — with Vegas-style stakes.
From a kabbalist viewpoint, however, one can think above and beyond the box of Sunday school sound-bites by asking the right questions — Why these four letters? Why put them on a top? We can find clues hidden in the Letters to know why and how the Maccabees were able to rededicate the Temple just by “playing” with a “toy”. May we have such capacity in our own time!
Whether made out of the Grecian clay soil or, most recently, molded Chinese plastic, spinning a dreidel with the left hand, the right understanding, clear kavvanah (intention) and the appropriate blessing can be a transformative act; the dreidel becomes a magical tool. A dreidel enables us to take these four otiyot and niflaot, signs and wonders, in hand to create a stream of presence of the miraculous in our midst and reunite the four worlds.
We begin with Nun, signifying a place of internal rest. We retreat to a quiet, inner place where outer distractions cannot penetrate. By returning to “neutral” we make ourselves “empty” and ready to receive the wisdom and strength necessary to face the greater challenges. We are able to reclaim and renew ourselves for the work ahead. (Atzilut)
Gimmel, the third letter of the Alef-Bet, has the numerical number of 3, which is also the total value of the Letters that spell sheffa, the promise of abundance. Once we reach repose, we realize how much greater is our internal capacity to fully receive that abundance from the Great Source above. We have the strength to literally turn our ideas and dreams into reality here and now. (Briah)
The dreidel doesn’t spin itself. Each of us, in turn, must take hold of the dreidel at its axle handle, put its tip on the earth and spin it by adding our life force. With Hei guiding our hand we become that connectivity between above and below at a very specific point in time and space. (Yetzirah)
Everyone’s attention is fixed as the dreidel begins to spin. The growing excitement indicates that sheffa is whirling out from the center toward all who are captivated. The letters are now in full motion and returning to a single, blurry, formless pure essence. The Shin heralds the presence of the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God, who will spread her protection (shomer) over us to help dispel the negativity that always hovers nearby anything hopeful. (Assiah)
|Contribute a translation||English|
May I achieve self-realization in the present moment, and
Fully receive the Shekhinah’s abundant protection.
Blessed are You,
Ruler of Time and Space,
Who directs us to spin the dreidel.
“ברכה לסבוב הסביבון | A Blessing for Dreidel Spinning, by Lieba B. Deutsch” is shared through the Open Siddur Project with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International copyleft license.
Works of related interest:
תפילה לראש חודש טבת ותקופת החורף על חנוכּה | Prayer for the new moon of Tevet on Ḥanukkah occurring on the winter solstice, by Rabbi David Seidenberg (neohasid.org)
ברכות לנרות חנוכה | Die Segenssprüche beim Anzünden der Ḥanukkah-Lichter (German trans. by Chajm Guski)
כַּוָּנָה לְהַדְלָקַת נֵרוֹת חֲנֻכָּה | Kavvanah for Ḥanukkiah Lighting by Bonna Devora Haberman, z”l (Mistabra Institute for Jewish Textual Activism, 2002)
ט״וּ בִּשְׁבָט | Rebirthing the Tree(s) of Life: Four Teachings for the Four Worlds of Tu BiShvat/Yah BiShvat by Arthur Waskow
A Blessing for the Bugs on the Jewish New Year’s Day for Animals, Rosh Hashana La-Behemah, by Trisha Arlin
🗍 סֵדֶר ט״וּ בִּשְׁבָט | Tu BiShvat Seder Haggadah in presentation format, by rabbis Rachel Barenblat and David Evan Markus (Bayit: Your Jewish Home 5778)