Relic-condition dreidels, each crudely cast in lead or a similar alloy, mounted to a black felt-covered board set into a simple black shadow box.
A dreidel, also dreidle or dreidl is a four-sided spinning top, played during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The dreidel is a Jewish variant on the teetotum, a gambling toy found in many European cultures.
Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: nun, gimel, hei, and shin. The dreidel developed from an Irish or English top introduced into Germany known as a teetotum, which was popular around Christmas time and dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times. The teetotum was inscribed with letters denoting the Latin words for “nothing”, “everything”, “half”, and “put in”.
In German this came to be called a trendel, with German letters for the same concepts. Adapted to the Hebrew alphabet when Jews adopted the game, these letters were replaced by nun for “not”, gimel for “entire, whole”, hei for “half”, and shin for “put in”.
A popular conjecture had it that the letters abbreviated the words “nes gadól hayá sham” (a great miracle happened there), an idea that became attached to dreidels when the game entered into Hanukkah festivities.
According to a tradition first documented in 1890, the game was developed by Jews who illegally studied the Torah in seclusion as they hid, sometimes in caves, from the Seleucids under Antiochus IV. At the first sign of Seleucids approaching, their Torah scrolls would be concealed and be replaced by dreidels.
The variant names goyrl (destiny) and vartl (a little throw) were also current in Yiddish until the Holocaust. In the wake of Zionism, the dreidel was renamed sevivon in modern Israel and the letters were altered, with shin generally replaced by pe. This yields the reading, “a great miracle happened here.”