If you ask most people why we play Dreidel on Chanukah, you’ll probably get a answer like the following:
A game similar to the dreidel game was popular during the rule of Antiochus. During this period Jews were not free to openly practice their religion, so when they gathered to study Torah they would bring a top with them. If soldiers appeared, they would quickly hide what they were studying and pretend to be playing a gambling game with the top.
Does anyone notice any similarity between this explanation, and the reason given for bows and arrows on Lag B’Omer?
But if Dreidel is such an old Jewish custom, how come that it is not mentioned in any Talmudic or other early sources? In fact, how come there wasn’t even a Hebrew word for Dreidel until the modern era? The word סביבון (Sivivon) was coined by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, legend has it that his son Itamar came up with the word. Other early modern Hebrew speakers used other words, Bialik referred to a Dreidel as a "כרכר".
Given that Chanukah represents our rejection of foreign culture, the biggest irony is that it seems that we stole the Dreidel from the Goyim. In the 16th Century there was a popular gambling game using a top known as a teetotum, popular particularly in Ireland around Christmas time (see picture).
Lookup up Teetotum in the dictionary:
[From T-totum. Originally a teetotum was a kind of die used in a game of chance. It had a stick put through a six-sided die so that only four sides could be used. One of the sides had the letter T representing Latin totum (all), implying take the whole stake from the pot. Other sides had letters A aufer (take one stake from the pot), D depone (put one stake), and N nihil (do nothing).
If you’re still not convinced that the Teetotum is the original dreidel, when the game was played in Germany, the game was called “Trundl”, and the 4 sides were translated to German as follows: N (Nichts = nothing), G (Ganz = all), H (Halb = half), and S (Stell ein = put in).
You don’t have to be a language scholar to translate those letters to Yiddish.
Chanukah Sameach to all