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The Chanukah Dreidel and its Halachos

Although the mitzvos for Chanukah are lighting candles and saying the full Hallel, there are numerous other customs associated with Chanukah. Among these is playing dreidel.

Playing the dreidel is clearly not obligatory. Nonetheless, as we will see, a number of prominent authorities give it the respect of a full Minhag Yisrael. Moreover, playing dreidel raises a number of halachic issues that one should be aware of.

What are the reasons given for the Chanukah dreidel? Is it permitted to play dreidel on Shabbos? Is there any problem with the gambling aspect involved in playing dreidel? These issues, among others, are discussed in the present article.

The Source of the Custom

Nobody can say with certainty when the custom of playing dreidel on Chanukah first began. The idea is not found in sources from Talmudic times or even in the era of Geonim and Rishonim. Its first mention is by Ashkenazi authorities of the Eighteenth Century (though the custom might be older).

According to one source, the custom of playing dreidel relates to the time of the Maccabees. It is said that in an effort to circumvent the Greek decree against studying Torah, children studying with their teacher would have a dreidel handy to start playing in case the Greeks came upon them while they were studying Torah. They would say that they were not studying but just playing dreidel. In commemoration of this element of the Chanukah miracle, the dreidel game was adopted as a custom (Rabbi A. Hirschovitz, Minhagei Yeshurun (1890), no. 19, sec. 4).

A similar idea is mentioned by the Rebbe of Tzanz in his Shefa Chaim (Vol. 2, no. 283), where he writes that the custom actually is a sort of critique of the covert manner in which our ancestors performed mitzvos. Rather than hiding behind the dreidel, our fathers ought to have proudly declared their commitment to Torah, even in the face of danger. Our playing dreidel today, according to this line of thought, is meant to declare our commitment to Torah and mitzvos in all circumstances.

It is important to note that in spite of these lofty ideas, the dreidel may not be of Jewish origin. Dreidel seems to be a version of an apparently older game of teetotum, a gambling game played in late medieval England. Teetotum uses a top with four sides and four letters. Moreover, even the letters that appear on the dreidel are the same letters that appear on a German or Yiddish teetotum (see below on this). The game teetotum dates back to at least the 16th century – before the first recorded Jewish allusions to dreidel. Yet if the assertions of the halachic authorities above are correct, teetotum may in fact be a derivative of the older dreidel.

Ideas of Dreidel

Many Jewish thinkers discuss the significance of the dreidel to Chanukah, especially in mystical terms.

The Bnei Yissachar writes that the reason a dreidel is spun from the top, whereas the Purim gragger turned from the bottom, is related to how each of the miracles were effected. On Chanukah the miracle came from above, directly from Hashem. However, on Purim the miracles were brought about by the actions of Esther, Mordechai and the Jewish people from below.

Thus, the dreidel is spun from the top showing that the miracle came from above, and the gragger from the bottom showing that the miracle came from below. The Bnei Yissachar, as well as many others, also suggests different hidden allusions of the letters customarily written on the four sides of the dreidel (nun, gimmel, hei, shin).

A more simplistic explanation for the adaptation of the custom is suggested by the Aveni Nezer (see Piskei Teshuvos, Vol. 6, p. 463). In his view, the custom evolved from the special atmosphere of Chanukah, when all members of the family get together for lighting the candles so as to publicize the miracle. To ensure that the children would not fall asleep, the dreidel game was canonized as custom.

Whatever the reason and source, it is clear that the dreidel has become a popular custom among Ashkenazi Jewry. Indeed, as we will presently see, a number of leading authorities took the game quite seriously – as all other Jewish customs.

Jewish Custom

Although dreidel is only a game, we find that the Chasam Sofer used to participate in the dreidel custom, and play during Chanukah with a silver dreidel he owned (Eleph Kesav, Vol. 1, no. 396). According to another source, the Chasam Sofer would take out his dreidel when guests would visit him on Chanukah, and invite them to spin it so as to fulfill the custom (Edus le-Yisrael, Vol. 17, p. 1).

So, too, we find that many leading authorities of Ashkenazi Jewry played the dreidel game, as several works chronicle (see Miminhagam shel Gedolei Ashkenaz, Chap. 3, no. 8; Siach Sadecha, Ki Tisa p. 164). The sefer Peleh Yo’etz (p. 90) notes that many Rabbanim of Ashkenaz played dreidel on Chanukah, to publicize the miracle.

In Chassidic circles the dreidel was treated with utmost respect, and many authorities write of the secrets latent in it. In his Laws of Chanukah (1:2), for instance, Rabbi Nasan of Breslau writes how the idea of the dreidel is to “descend in order to ascend,” allowing the righteous to reach a unique elevation on Chanukah.

In the rest of this article we will focus on the more halachic aspects of this custom.

How to Play Dreidel

Outside of Israel, the four letters of the dreidel are nun, gimmel, hei, and shin, alluding to the words nes gadol haya sham – “a great miracle took place there.” At the same, time, the four letters stand for instructions for the players of the dreidel game.

To play dreidel, two to four players each get a handful of pennies, chocolate money, peanuts, or anything else used as a token. The remainder of the pot is left in the middle. Someone spins the dreidel, and depending on what letter the top lands on, he or she will:

NUN – Lose the turn; the top passes to the next player.

GIMMEL – Win all the pot.

HEY – Win half the pot

SHIN (or PEH) – Lose all or one of his coins

The instructions derive from the German or Yiddish words implied by the respective letters: G, H, N, S – G=ganz (all), H=halb (half), N=nischt (nothing), S=schict (put). These were also the letters used in the non-Jewish version of the game. The dreidel continues to be passed around the circle with each player spinning in turn until one player has won everyone’s tokens.

The nature of the game raises two principle issues: playing dreidel on Shabbos, and the general issue of gambling.

Games on Shabbos

Is it permissible to play any games on Shabbos?

The Gemara (Eruvin 103) records a prohibition against playing on Shabbos with nuts and apples, which were used in Talmudic times for games like marbles are used today. Initially, the Gemara suggests that this is forbidden because of the noise produced when the nuts strike each other. Ultimately, however, the Gemara concludes that playing these games are forbidden because of the concern that the nuts or apples might smooth the earth on the ground as they roll (such as by filling holes in the ground with earth), which constitutes a Shabbos violation.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 338:5) codifies this prohibition and mentions the reason for the prohibition is that the nuts and apples might smooth the earth. Since the concern is smoothing the earth on the ground, this prohibition applies only to games played on unpaved ground. It does not apply to games played on tables, tiled floors or pavement (Rema, loc. cit.). The Mishnah Berurah (308:158) applies the same prohibition to outdoor ball games.

In fact, we find in the Yerushalmi (cited by the Beis Yosef 308) that one of the reasons offered for the destruction of Tul Shimon (at the time of the Second Destruction) is that they used to play ball, which commentators interpret as playing on Shabbos (see Eichah Rabba, Eichah 2:2). According to the Roke’ach (55), the problem in this is that people spent their time playing games rather than in Torah study and other pursuits worthy of the holy Shabbos.

Based on this idea, some authorities write that it is forbidden altogether to play games on Shabbos, including even games such as chess, checkers (draughts) and other board games (see Chida, Orach Chaim 338:1). The majority of authorities reject this stringency, and permit games on Shabbos provided they don’t involve monetary transactions (Rema 338:5; Maamar Mordechai; see Mishnah Berurah 21, citing also from Mahara Sasson who is stringent).

It is interesting to note that the Chida actually observes that certain Rabbis he knew about would play chess on Shabbos, indicating that the practice is permitted. Yet, he speculates that perhaps these Rabbis suffered from a kind of depression and felt the need to engage in some form of entertainment to overcome their melancholy.

Dreidel on Shabbos

Concerning playing dreidel on Shabbos, a number of authorities write that it is permitted to do so (even outdoors), for there is no concern about smoothing out holes (see Or Yisrael on Chanukah, Chap. 1 note 85, citing from Rav Nassan Kopschitz and from Rav Elyashiv). Chut Shani (p. 304) adds that there is no concern about muktzeh, even though the dreidel is played in a money context during the week.

As noted, the Rema permits playing games on Shabbos, but limits his permission to games that are not played for the purpose of financial gain. With regard to dreidel, it is possible that even if the game is played for gain (such as with any kind of token, as suggested above), there will still be no prohibition, since such gain is not permanent. Its entire purpose is for the game. If at the end of the game the entire pot is returned for the benefit of all, this shows that there is no real gainful purpose involved.

This lenient ruling was given by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Shulchan Shlomo, 338:5; Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasa 16:32 writes that one should preferably avoid the practice).

Dreidel Gambling

Is it permitted to actually gamble with the dreidel during the week, as was the custom in days of old? By way of introduction, it is important to understand the principles underlying the issue of gambling in halachah.

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin24a)lists a number of individuals whose testimony is not accepted in Beis Din. One of these is a person who is Mesachek BeKubya – literally, one who plays with dice. The Gemara notes two opinions as to why his testimony is not accepted.

Rami Bar Chama explains that gambling of this type is an asmachta – literally,“reliance.” When a person gambles, he does so under the assumption (reliance) that his gamble will pay off and that he will win, and the very realistic chance of losing does not occur to him. If he does end up losing, he parts with his money against his will. Consequently, money acquired through such activity is considered stolen, invalidating the acquirer as a witness.

Rav Sheshes, however, argues that the problem of the  Mesachek BeKubya in the Mishnah is not asmachta, and that a one-time act of gambling is not prohibited. The problem is merely with a professional gambler who does not contribute to society in general. He does not participate be-yishuvo shel olam.This itself is sufficient cause to invalidate his testimony in Beis Din (since he does not support himself like a normal member of society, the way he values money may be distorted).

One difference between the two opinions is whether it is permitted to engage in a casual game of dreidel or to buy one lottery ticket or an item at a Chinese auction. According to the logic that the winner has committed a theft, dreidel might be prohibited even on a one-time basis. If, however, the problem only applies to one who makes his livelihood in this manner, then playing dreidel, buying one lottery ticket, or participating in a Chinese auction will be permitted.

Halachah on Dreidel Gambling

The Rosh rules leniently like Rami Bar Chama, whereas the Rambam (and other Sephardic authorities) seem to rule like Rav Sheshes. These respective rulings are codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 207:13), who appears to rule stringently, and the Rema, according to whom there is room for leniency (in a case of gambling where the result is not in the hands of the gambler).

For Sephardim, Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 7:6) thus writes that it is forbidden to buy lottery tickets (referring to lotteries administered by the Israeli government): “The Halachic conclusion is that Sephardim … are prohibited to purchase lottery tickets.” The same will apparently apply to playing dreidel where the winner keeps the winnings.

It should be noted that many dispute this ruling, even for Sephardim, citing a number of precedents for lotteries in halachah (see, for instance, Shut Chavas Ya’ir no. 61 and Shut Peri Ha’etz Vol. 2, no. 15, both of whom discuss lotteries without mentioning the prohibition of gambling). It is possible that even if gambling is forbidden, a lottery is permitted, because in the case of a lottery the money is pooled together and no individual is taking the other’s money.

In playing dreidel, it is therefore possible that if the money is pooled together first, and only later distributed for playing, all will agree that the practice is permitted (see Rema 207:13).

Permitted Gambling

Two permitted forms of gambling are suggested. Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos 4:311, based on Rema 207:19) writes that since the primary concern in gambling is that the loser does not willingly give over his losses, when playing to benefit tzedakah this is not a concern. Where he has a mitzvah of giving charity, we assume the loser willingly gives up his losses.

A similar heter is suggested when playing with small amounts, as in a casual Chanukah game with friends and family. Since it is in the spirit of the day, it can be assumed that everyone involved wholeheartedely relinquishes any money they might lose (see Nitei Gavriel, Laws of Chanukah).

In spite of this, the sefer Customs of Maharitz Ha-Levi (Chanukah) cites Rav Yosef Tzvi Ha-Levi Dunner that the custom among Ashkenaz communities is to play specifically with nuts and almonds (and the like) and not with money, so as to avoid teaching children bad monetary habis. He proceeds to note that even if it is permitted to gamble in this way, it remains better to avoid the practice.

Warm wishes for a joyous Chanukah to all.

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