Sunday, December 28, 2008

Why we should ban playing dreidel, pt ii

Continuing the previous post about gambling and dreidel playing, we have some further sources to present. Firstly, from the Zchus Avos blog, we have that playing cards and klipos is well connected. I do not believe that they are really well connected, on a spiritual level. If playing cards for money is problematic, it is because of halachic violations involved, or developing certain negative middot from the type of attitude one must take in playing cards. And whether or not the specific rabbonim believed their statements about klipot and connection to satan, etc., or whether this was a poetic way of expressing their opposition, in the end, at the least, the opposition is the same.

Thus, the Bnei Yissasschar found an appropriate gematria to satan, but one can easily come up with gematrias that fit. He knew to look for this gematria (and to choose this particular word of קרטן and switch the kuf and resh for the numerically equivalent sin) because he knew it was bad to do. But you obviously cannot argue that tennis is similarly forbidden because כדור טניס is the same gematria (359). And he knew that one could not argue that it is an appropriate way of having simchat Yom Tov on Chanukkah, because the same is the gematria of חג שמח. (The same Bnei Yissasschar speaks of mystical aspects of the dreidel.)

And connecting it to klipot -- how can one write a post on the subject without making the obvious connection between klafim (from klaf, parchments, thus playing cards) to klipot. Perhaps because it was so obvious. But it is best made overt. And when the words are the same, except for the feminine vs. masculine ending, is there to wonder that R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev made the connection and said that in each card there is a big klipah?

But moving on. Card play = bad. Dreidel = good, for the most part.

But dreidel is a fairly modern invention. To cite the seforim blog (Dan Rabinowitz), from 2005. After giving all sorts of mystical explanations for features of dreidels:
Despite all of these explanations, in truth, dreidel is not Jewish in origin. Rather, driedel is really the rather old game of teetotum. Teetotum, which uses a top with four sides and four letters is one and the same with dreidel. The letters that appear on the dreidel are really just the Hebrew letters that appear on a German or Yiddish teetotum, G, H, N, S. G= ganz (all), H halb (half), N nischt (nothing) and S schict (put). Teetotum dates back to at least the 16th century long before we have any Jewish allusions to dreidel(it was originally totum or top, but became TEEtotum due to the use of T for take all, on the top). The well-known depiction of children's games done by Brueghel in 16th century includes Teetotum(see here and here for the complete painting). The earliest Jewish mention of dreidel or the significance of it dates to the late 18th century.

The story connecting dreidel to the ruse of the Maccabis was first published in the book Minhagi Yeshurun, which was first published in 1890 (the name was changed to Otzar Kol Minhagi Yeshurin in the third edition, which is available online here from . The author included a nice picture of himself at the beginning, although he was a Rabbi in Pittsburgh at the turn of the twentieth century, he is holding a quill pen.) His source is a contemporary of his. [As an aside, although his explanation of dreidel is well-known he offers a similar explanation for playing cards on Chanukah, i.e. that the Maccabi did so. However, that one is not nearly as well know (sic).]

Since the time that blog post was published, many of the links have become defunct. Including the one to, and a search could no longer locate that sefer at that site. Lucky for us, we still have, which maintained several copies. (See page 95 in the PDF.)

{Update: Thanks to an anonymous commenter who provided the following new links on, here and here.}

I am pretty sure I disagree with the Seforim blogger's categorization of Ozar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun's explanation playing of cards. I present it here for your consideration (see right). He uses the term naaseh heter, with the implication that it is not really permitted. And he says mishum shechoshvim -- that they believe -- though it is not really so. And that they believe it is a zecher of the wars that the Maccabees did in those days. Not that it is a zecher to the wars, because the Maccabees did this (playing cards), which is apparently how the Seforim blogger is reading it. (Unless my reading is off.) And therefore it has no basis in out religion and faith. And it is sufficient (??) for gentile children. And in a footnote, a haarah that it was created as a game for the many wives of a certain king.

So it is not the case that he offers a similar explanation for playing cards.

However, this is apparently the first written source for dreidel, in seif 4. To see that again:

"4: The children play on Chanukkah with a game of tops (dreidel).
The reason is that they decreed that they should not learn Torah, just as we say in Al HaNisim, 'to cause Your Torah to be forgotten,' and at that time, they all learned orally, and in one band, in order that each person should remind his brother, lest he forget a matter. And the decree was that they should not gather in a single place in bands. The Sages found, at the time of the decree, a wondrous suggestion, in this that they made the game of dreidel to show their enemies if they were discovered, that they were playing with the game of tops, and that they were not learning. And with this development like this they were able to learn and teach. Therefore, it remains for us this game, as a remembrance of the miracle, that because of it the Torah of Hashem was not forgotten, that it stood for our fathers and us. (In the name of the rav, the author (?) of sefer Avodat Eved and the sefer Tiferet Tzvi, and the Rav Ziw (?) brings it down.)

I would guess, if the author of Avodat Eved is his contemporary, that this is the sefer being referenced, printed in 1877.

Of course, if the dreidel is known to have been invented much later than the Chashmonaim, then this is a spurious etiology of the practice.

Indeed, it calls to mind the rather similar story with Rabbi Akiva and his students, going hunting with bows and arrows as a pretext for going off together, where the real intent was to learn and teach Torah. So I would doubt this explanation. And rather, just as they played one form of gambling -- card playing -- they played this other form of gambling as well, and then all sorts of mystical explanations were attached to it in the 1900s. So one false explanation failed, and one took off. But such that there is no real distinction between playing cards for pennies or playing dreidel for pennies.

Meanwhile, here is another writeup of the practice of playing dreidel.

Note: I see nothing wrong with playing dreidel on Chanukkah, but this post was not intended as halacha lemaaseh. If you really have questions on how to act, consult your local Orthodox rabbi.


Anonymous said...

The corrected link to Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurin is here:

b said...

Do you belive gematriyos are worthless in general?Your opinion seems to be it's just looking for suport for anyones opinion.

OTAT said...

I would guess that "Rav Ziw." is Rav Moshe Shimon Ziwitz who was also a rav in Pittsburgh at that time. He was quite a prolific author and it might be he brings it in one of his seforim (some of which are available on


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