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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 5.6:
What are the origins of the Chanukah Dreidel?


Both dreidel and grogger are traditional European toys, although the names they go by in non-Jewish cultures are quite different from the ones we use.

The English (and Latin) name for the dreidel is teetotum -- and you can look up its history in the Oxford English Dictionary. It turns out to be an ancient gambling toy, known in ancient Greece, and with national variations on the letters on the faces of the toy. In all national variants, the letters are a mnemonic for the rules of the game. For example, the traditional English letters are:

   T - Take all

   H - Take half

   N - Nothing

   P - Put

Although the fact that the Dreidel goes back to Greek times makes it possible that it was known in the Hashemonean kingdom, the fact that the Hebrew letters on the sides make a mnemonic that fits the pattern described above when used as initial letters of Yiddish words suggests that the dreidel entered Jewish culture through the Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi and is not of ancient origin.

The OED entry for teetotum says that that the toy fell out of use because cards were far better gambling games, and that by the 1890's, it had been reduced to a children's toy in the English speaking world.

In the Jewish world, according to Schauss's guide to Jewish Holy Days, the playing card fad of the middle ages led the rabbis issuing a series of edicts condemning excessive gambling. They didn't ban the dreidel, though, perhaps because the "A great miracle happened there" interpretation of the letters allowed the dreidel to escape their wrath.

As to the grogger, the rest of the English speaking world calls them ratchets. You can buy orchestral ratchets from the precussion section of good music supply catalogs, and in much of the world, the ratchet is an important part of the equipment you take to things like soccer matches and new-years parties.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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© (c) 1993-2002 Daniel P. Faigin <>