Want to mark Hanukkah with your family? Whether you're Jewish or not, one of the favorite traditional games to play during Hanukkah is the dreidel.
The dreidel has a Hebrew letter on each of its four sides. The nun, gimel, hei, and shin stand for the saying, "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham," which translates to "a great miracle occurred there."
What does it mean? "There" refers to Israel, and "the great miracle" refers to the miracle of Hanukkah, during which a small amount of oil lasted eight days -- allowing Jews, who were celebrating their victory over a tyrant king, to keep the rededicated Temple's menorah lit for a miraculous eight days.
This year, Hanukkah begins at sunset December 22 and ends at nightfall December 30.
How to play dreidel
Dreidel is a simple, but fun game that even the youngest kids in the family can enjoy!
What you'll need:
- A dreidel
- A pile of small items (such as chocolate coins, real pennies, beans, or candy) distributed equally amongst the players. It's typical to start with as many as 15 pieces each.
How to play:
- Each player puts one item from his pile of tokens into the center, making a ‘pot’.
- Players take turns spinning the dreidel. The Hebrew or English letter that comes up when it lands determines what the player must do with their tokens.
- At the end of a player's turn, every player places another token into the pot.
- When the player runs out of pieces, they are either out of the game or can ask another player for a loan.
What do the dreidel symbols mean?
Most of the time, the symbols on dreidels are Hebrew letters. (Though you'll find some dreidels have English letters H, S, N, and G.)
Here's what the letters mean in terms of the game:
If the נ (nun) is facing up (or the letter N), the player does nothing.
If the ג (gimel) is facing up (or the letter G), the player gets everything in the pot.
If ה (hei) is facing up (or the letter H), the player gets half of the pieces in the pot. (If there is an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player rounds up.)
ש or פ:
If ש (shin) or פ (pe) is facing up (or the letter S), the player adds a game piece to the pot. In some versions, a Shin results in adding three game pieces to the pot (one for each stem of the Shin). Other players chant "Shin, Shin, put one in!" when the unlucky player's dreidel falls on this side.
Tips for first time players:
- Set a timer or time limit, or the game can go on forever!
- Young children who cannot spin the dreidel can simply throw the dreidel down gently (like dice).
- Bring several different dreidels to the game and allow the children to choose a different dreidel for each round.
Sharon Rosenthal is the publisher of Macaroni Kid Ventura County, Calif.
Find more Hanukkah articles in our Wonderful Winter Guide!