I often get asked the questions, “What is the symbolism of the dreidel? What exactly is its origin?” The dreidel is a four cornered top that was popular in the medieval era and originally used for gambling. Jewish folklore purports that when the Syrians prohibited the study of Torah, the Jews insurrectionists would take a top to gamble with, so that the soldiers would let them play their game in peace. The name, “dreidel,” is a Yiddish word that derives from the German verb, “drehen,” (“to turn”).
Historically, the origin of the dreidel is not quite so apocryphal. During the medieval era, gambling dice often had four letters inscribed, N,G, H, and S, representing “nichts,” (nothing), “ganz” (i.e., winner takes “all”), and “shtell arein” (“put in”). Jews subsequently transformed the dice into a top and added four Hebrew letters, נ (N), ג (G), ה (H), and שׁ (S)—signifying, נֵס גָדוֹל הָיָה שָם “nes gadol hayah sham” (“A great miracle happened there”).
The symbolism gets more interesting when we take into consideration the numerological patterns the Kabbalists cleverly add when redesigning the dreidel during the medieval era. The value of the four letters equals 358, the same numerology (gematria) as Moshiach (Messiah)! This could suggest several things:
(1) The wandering of the Jews (drehen) is not purposeless, though it may seem that way at times. Israel’s wandering serves to bring the world that much closer to its final redemptive stage of human history—the Messianic era.
(2) As the dreidel spins, it represents the pulsating movement of the Divine; we who observe it, cannot see how its final stage will unfold until it actually occurs. Such a concept has its antecedents in the Talmud’s famous statement, “Three come unawares: Messiah, a found article and a scorpion” (T.B. Sanhedrin 97a). I have always liked this passage, for in its simplicity, the Sages teach us that it is not for mortal men–or women–regardless how pious or learned they happen to be, to engage in the mindless pursuit of messianic prognostications. The Messiah will appear when we least expect him to arrive.
(3) Our fortunes in life are much like the chaotic turnings of the dreidel; those of us who lost our fortunes with the crash of the Stock Market crash, know the wisdom of this teaching only all too well …
In short, although our existence is unpredictable, faith is the compass that provides us with the wisdom and radar to navigate through even the most difficult of times, like today.