Meditations on the Dreidel

Meditations on the Dreidel

Historical, Allegorical and Kabbalistic Perspectives

On Chanukah, we have a custom of playing with dreidels. In Hebrew, a dreidel is called s’vivon, ‘spinner’. It is a small ‘top’ with four sides, which is spun from a handle above, and revolves on a pivot below. The earliest mention of the dreidel or its significance is found in relatively recent texts; perhaps the toy is as old as the late 18th Century. On the other hand, the game of Dreidel could be a variation on Teetotum, a much older German gambling game which used a top with four-sides. In any case, nothing is mere coincidence; everything is b’hashgachah, by Divine Providence. The fact that the dreidel has been associated with Chanukah for a couple hundred years tells us that we can derive Chanukah teachings from it.


In the Land of Israel, during the Roman Era of religious persecution, the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot were prohibited. Teachers would gather their young Torah students and hide in caves or remote areas. As they would study, one child would be on the lookout, and when he noticed a Roman soldier approaching, he would notify the others. They would take out gambling toys and pretend they were playing games. According to legend, of course, they were playing Dreidel. Seeing games in progress, the Roman’s would not suspect them of studying Torah, and would go on their way. Thus, our intellectual and spiritual traditions survived.

Here is how the game of Dreidel is played today. Each player puts in some candy, chocolate coins, or some change, into the pot. When you spin the dreidel, if it lands on its side with the letter Gimmel facing up, you win the whole pot. If it lands on Hei, you get half the pot. Nun means you get nothing, and Shin requires that you put another item into the pot. In Yiddish the four letters inscribed on the dreidel stand for the following: Gimmel is for gantz, you get ‘the whole thing’. Hei is for halb, ‘half’ the pot. Nun is for nisht, ‘nothing’, and Shin is for shtell arein, ‘put in’.


Chanukah is a celebration of our religious freedom. The dreidel reminds us of a time when our freedom was in peril and yet we miraculously remained dedicated. The letters on the driedel thus acquired a Hebrew interpretation: Nun for nes, ‘a miracle’, Gimmel for gadol, ‘great’, Hei for haya, ‘happened’, and Shin for shom, ‘there’. “A great miracle happened there (in the Land of Israel).” Instead of a Shin, dreidels in Israel are engraved with the letter Pei for poh, ‘here’.

The letters on the dreidel also represent the two basic mitzvos we perform on Chanukah: the lighting of the Menorah for eight nights, and the singing of Hallel, Hashem’s praise, during the day. Re-arranged, Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin, are an acronym for Ne’iras Shemonah, ‘eight lightings’, and Hallel Gamur, the ‘complete Hallel’ service.

Since the dreidel was a means of hiding the Torah-study of children, it is a symbol of spiritual defiance and perseverance in the face of adversity. The four sides and four letters therefore came to represent the four general empires that attempted to destroy the Jewish People: the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Later, we will explain the significance of these four empires, and the corresponding exiles in more detail.

Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have been in a spiritual condition of galus, or exile. Our present state of exile is considered to be an extension of the Roman exile. Much like the spinning dreidel, which eventually falls down, these four empires that once sought to enslave and conquer us, eventually fell themselves. And yet, defying all odds, we remained.


The means of our survival has always been a relentless cleaving to our center, and to the Divine Center-point of all reality. When the dreidel is spinning intensely around its center, the four sides blur and appear circular; the multiple surfaces of the cube become as the single surface of a cylinder, as they cleave, so-to-speak, to the oneness of their center. Like the dreidel, we only topple when we loosen our intrinsic bond with our Center-point, and aspire to act independently of our Source.

When we cling to the outer square sides of the dreidel, instead of to the Center-point, our life can seem to be spinning out of control. We may occasionally notice a pattern or internal structure to our unfolding life story, but more often, life seems haphazard or random. One day we are oriented to the right, the next day to the left; one moment we seem to be in full control of our lives, and the next moment we seem to be controlled by outside forces. It seems like a gamble, whether we will be winners or losers. This is the experience of personal exile.

Yet, as the dreidel gently shows us, this is how our lives might be perceived from ‘below’. There is also a hand ‘above’ that sets the dreidel into motion. Therefore, even when events appear to be whirling out of focus, we can to realize that nothing is in essence random or chaotic. Everything is guided by the Divine will.

Often salvation arises ke’heref ayin, ‘as swift as the blink of an eye’. One moment, the prospects of our future can seem utterly hopeless. Then, as if from nowhere, a ray of light can appear, radically changing our orientation. When we are aware that we could be illumined at any moment, we realize that Hashem is spinning the dreidel of life. In the story of Chanukah, we can see the higher miracles and the supernal hand. When we purify our hearts and consciousness, we can observe our own lives as from ‘above’.


The whole universe pulses with the rhythm of life and death, and all things are in a constant stage of flux, putting on and shedding forms, for nothing within the sphere of created existence is everlasting or permanent. Even at a sub-nuclear level, the quarks and gluons that make up the atoms of our bodies are perpetually annihilated and recreated. Ninety-eight percent of the atoms in your body were not there a year ago. Your skin is renewed every month, your stomach lining every four days, and the surface cells that actually contact food, every five minutes.

All of existence is like a whirling dreidel. The Jewish sages called it a galgal ha-chozer, a rotating wheel. What is up one day is down the next, and vice versa. Yet while everything is in a constant state of becoming, of turning and shifting, many people stubbornly cling to rigid, linear definitions of life. This attempt to fix reality upon unmoving or predicable reference points is related to Hellenism, idolatry, and materialism. It naturally creates much stress and suffering.


A rigid approach to life is a symptom of yesh-consciousness. Yesh means ‘something’, or ‘ego’, or the superficial observable layer of finite reality. The antidote to yesh-consciousness is to include ayin-consciousness in our lives. Ayin means ‘nothing’, or ‘non-self’, the infinite divine reality from where the yesh continually springs into existence.

Since our senses are so captivated by ‘things’, we come to believe that yesh is the only reality. We lose touch with ayin, otherwise known as the yuli, or pure potentiality. When we are in touch with this infinitely creative reality, the self and the world we perceive never assume rigid or absolute definitions. Instead, we live in the flow of continuous creation and re-creation.

When we get stuck in a yesh paradigm, we buy into the absoluteness of our condition. If a person is in a place of darkness, whether spiritually, mentally or even financially, and there seems to be no way out, let him look beyond the yesh into the ayin. The deeper we penetrate beyond the yesh, the more opportunities open to us. In ayin-consciousness, the laws of cause and effect are suspended, and everything is possible. The first verse of Psalm 121 is a meditation on this teaching:

Esa einai el he-harim,

I lift up my eyes to the mountains,

me’ayin yavo ezri?

from where (or ‘from ayin’) will my help come?

When you lift your eyes to the mountains, and you see only the yesh in front of you, you might feel despair. All you perceive are mountains, barriers and obstacles, and so from your depths comes the cry, “from where will my help come?” Yet, if you look beyond the mountains, you can realize that me’ayin—from ayin—comes your salvation.


A human being is comprised of four basic elements, or dimensions of yesh, and each one reflects a letter on the dreidel. Gimmel is for guf, the ‘body’, which, on its own is inanimate matter; Nun is for nefesh, ‘spirit’, the life-force that allows the body to grow and to feel; Shin is for seichel, ‘mind’ or consciousness; and Hei is for hakol, the ‘all’—the soul, which is the transcendent aspect of a person that includes and unifies the three previous elements. Any of these elements can be exiled, when misaligned with the Source.


Embodying the four kinds of misalignment, as four outer trajectories moving away from center, are the four empires which sought to destroy our ‘centeredness’, and to exile the Jewish People. One empire wished to destroy the bodies of the Jews; one desired to expunge their ability to feel; another sought to corrupt their minds, and another to quench any aspiration or yearning for transcendence.

The conquering Babylonian army destroyed the First Holy Temple and drove most of the Jews out of Jerusalem. They desired to eradicate and extinguish the Nun, the nefesh of the people. This exile was a devastating trauma to the Jewish People, and to the city which was center of their life-force.

Once the Jews were exiled to Babylon, the Persian Empire rose to power. It was during this reign that Haman was inspired to rise up and destroy the Gimmel, the guf of the Jew.

The intellectual, philosophically inclined Greeks attacked the Shin, the seichel of the Jew, by instituting Hellenic thought and forbidding Torah study. The Pei on the Israeli dreidel stands for philosofiya, ‘philosophy’.  The Greeks were not out to kill the Jewish body or spirit, but rather to enfold them within the Greek Empire by indoctrinating them and changing their worldview.

The Roman Empire, with her offspring, Western civilization, has imposed all three expressions of exile upon the world. Ever since the destruction of the Second Holy Temple, Jews have suffered bodily, spiritually and intellectually—the Hei, or hakol of the Jew. Between the massacres and pogroms, and the threat of assimilation and the enticement of secularism, there has been a constant battle on all fronts between “Rome” and “Jerusalem”. The survival of the Jewish life-force, intellect and soulfulness, is indeed a miracle that we witness with our own eyes.


The personal level of exile may not be a literal physical or social threat, but it is always linked with a state of mind that subverts the full revelation and flow of who we really are. Much like the dreidel is carved with the four surfaces that define its shape, we too have carved ourselves down to limiting self-definitions. Whether we believe ourselves to be primarily physical, sensate, intellectual, or even transcendent, we have boxed ourselves into an identity, and this creates the appearance of separation from the Whole.

This four-sided dreidel of limited identity, however, will one day slow down and topple. The prison of limitations is impermanent. When we go about arguing for our limitations, believing, ‘I am not strong enough, I did not have the right upbringing, I am not intelligent enough, I am not spiritual enough’—this may create an appearance of walls. But it is only an appearance.


To break out of any personal limitation or communal exile, there is one main path: to become “centered”. From the perspective of the center, all limitations are mere projections or shadows. We have the ability to access this powerful perspective at all times, because deep within our center is the Light of Oneness.

Most of the surviving remnants of Israel come from the tribe of Yehudah or ‘Judah’. The name ‘Judah’ is the source of ‘Jew’ and ‘Judaism’; today all Israelites are called Jews or Yehudim. The name Yehudah is comprised of five letters, Yud / Hei / Vav / Dalet / Hei. Four of these letters spell the name of Hashem, connoting Divine Oneness: Yud / Hei / Vav / Hei. This suggests that a Yehudi is ultimately rooted and centered in Oneness. Also within the name Yehudah is the letter Dalet, the fourth letter of the Alef-Beis, which hints at the four directions of the world, or the four sides of the dreidel.

When we are consciously centered in the Light of Oneness, we can radiate this light into all four directions of the world. This light dissolves all shadows, and removes the sharp edges of exile that seem to constrain or threaten us. When we are in touch with the one Hand that ‘spins’ all of Creation, we can enter any situation of constriction, and yet remain centered and essentially redeemed. This is why, in the Biblical narrative, the first son that Yaakov sends into the “Exile of Egypt” is Yehudah.


Let’s look more deeply into the above narrative. Yosef has become the ruler of Egypt. He perceives that his brothers desire to release their misaligned intentions, and he hears that their father Yaakov is still alive. Yosef therefore suggests that his brothers bring Yaakov, and the rest of the Israelite community, from the famine-stricken Land of Israel, to settle in Egypt. Yosef offers them settlement in the Egyptian province of Goshen. The patriarch Yaakov prophetically sees that leaving Israel for Egypt will culminate in harsh exile. Therefore before he takes the Israelites to their settlement, he sends his son Yehudah goshenah, ‘to Goshen’, to scout out the land and see if it is an appropriate place to dwell. According to Midrash, Yehudah goes there in order to set up a place for Torah-study and spiritual contemplation.

Remarkably, the word goshenah is comprised of the letters on the dreidel. This suggests that Goshen is a place where the four levels of personal exile, and the four future exiles of the Jewish People, are present in seed form. Yehuda goes into these four letters, so-to-speak, to ensure that exile will have no existential bearing on the community. Being a deeply centered individual, Yehudah is able to enter a place of constrictions and limitations, and yet remain connected to the Light of Oneness deep within himself. He then shines the four letters of the Name of Hashem into the Dalet, the four directions, dispersing there the shadows of limitation and exile. He thereby transforms Goshen into a source of redemptive, messianic consciousness.

The word goshenah has a numerical value of 358 (Gimmel=3, Shin=300, Nun =50, and Hei=5). The word moshiach, ‘redeemer’ has exactly the same numerical value (Mem=40, Shin=300, Yud=10, and Ches=8). The darkness of Goshen is only an absence of light; exile is only a kelipa, a husk which conceals the Light of Oneness within. In the narrative of the Tree of Good and Evil, the snake personifies kelipa. In Hebrew, ‘snake’ is nachash, which is also 358. Eventually, the kelipah of the nachash will fall, as the four-sided dreidel of exile falls, and the darkness of our ‘Goshen’ will be revealed as the light of Moshiach.

The transformation from nachash into moshiach is stimulated by our kindling of the Chanukah lights. The three blessings we recite upon kindling the lights hint at this process. The three blessings are: “…ner Chanukah” (Ches), “…sheasa Nisim” (Nun), and “…Shehechiyanu” (Shin). These three letters spell the word nachash. When we shine the Light of Oneness on the nachash, the force of kelipah and exile is banished.


When a square dreidel is spun, it appears as a circle. The square represents linear, defined, yesh-consciousness, while the circle, which has no beginning or end, corners or defined points, represents ayin-consciousness, and the breaking of our boundaries and limitations.

The square also represents the ‘prose’, or the defined story line of our life, and the circle represents the ‘poetry’ or music, the non-linear and miraculous aspect of life. Law and order is ‘square’, music and poetry is ‘circle’.

The Torah embraces a paradox: it is a book of law, and yet it is also called a shirah, a ‘song’ (Devarim, 31:19). In general terms, however, we can view the Written Torah as the ‘square’ of Divine law and order, and the Oral Torah, which is revealed through human collaboration, as the ‘circle’ of poetry, inspiration, and devotion. With this distinction in view, we can understand many of the customs that have been revealed within the collective prophetic soul of Knesses Yisrael, the Assembly of Israel. One example is the inspiring Rabbinic holiday of Channukah. Channukah is not found in the Written Torah. It is a holiday that has sprung from the circle-reality of Jewish creativity.

There is another fully Rabbinic holiday in the calendar: Purim. There is also a celebration that is attached to the final day of Sukkos, called Simchas Torah. This is a much later innovation, perhaps from the early 14th Century, CE. On all three days of Chanukah, Purim and Simchas Torah, we turn the squares of our lives into circles. On Chanukah, we spin the dreidel, on Purim we spin the gragger, and on Simchas Torah we take out the Torah and dance in circles around the square bimah.

Sometimes we need the boundaries of law and order, and other times we need to whirl with the poetry and passion of being alive. When we are getting married, for example, the poetry of life takes more prominence. Although we enter a square wedding canopy, and thereby draw boundaries around our relationship, within this orderly structure, we create circles. The circumambulations of the bride and the round wedding ring given by the groom symbolize the endless passion and poetry of love.


Both collective freedom and personal freedom are always available; all we need to do is to shine the light of awareness upon the darkness that seems to surround us. When we reveal our light, every moment of life becomes miraculous and freeing. When each person reveals enough of their ‘centeredness’ and light, the darkness and misalignment of our collective exile will vanish.

On the Festival of Lights, we can tap into the light and the poetry of life. We take a dreidel in our hand and give it a spin, affirming our redemption from all limitation, whether in the areas of Nun/nefesh/spirit, Gimel/guf/body, Shin/seichel/mind, or Hei/hakol/totality.

This Chanukah, may we open ourselves to new possibilities. May we spin our ‘squares’ into ‘circles’, release of rigid thinking, and embrace the infinite potential that Hashem is continuously giving to us. May we cleave to our center-point, and radiate the Light of Oneness in all directions.

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