What Is the Dreidel and How to Play

Rules of the Hanukkah Dreidel Game

Little boy and father playing dreidel

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A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter printed on each side. It is used during Hanukkah to play a popular children's game that involves spinning the dreidel and betting on which Hebrew letter will be showing when the dreidel stops spinning. Children usually play for a pot of gelt—chocolate coins covered in gold-colored tin foil—but they can also play for candy, nuts, raisins, or any small treat. Dreidel is a Yiddish word that comes from the German word "drehen," which means “to turn.”

What Is the Dreidel?

The dreidel is a child's toy that is traditionally used at Hanukkah. It is a spinning top that can land on any of its four sides. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter: נ (Nun), ג (Gimmel), ה (Hay), or ש (Shin). The letters stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Haya Sham," meaning "a great miracle happened there."

The original dreidels, made in ancient times, were formed out of clay. Most contemporary dreidels, however, are made of wood or plastic.

Dreidel Game Instructions and Rules

Any number of people can play the dreidel game; while it's usually played by children it can be played by people of any age.

Getting Started

To play the game you need:

  • Ten to fifteen pieces of Hanukkah gelt or candy per player
  • One dreidel
  • A hard surface, such as a table or a patch wood flooring

At the beginning of the game, players sit around the table or on the floor in a circle. Each player is given an equal number of gelt pieces or candy, usually ten to fifteen. At the beginning of each round, every player puts one piece of gelt into the center "pot."

Playing the Game

Players take turns spinning the dreidel. Each of the Hebrew letters has a specific meaning as well as a significance in the game:

  • Nun means "nichts," or "nothing" in Yiddish. If the dreidel lands with a nun facing up, the spinner does nothing.
  • Gimmel means "ganz," Yiddish for "everything." If the dreidel lands with the gimmel facing up, the spinner takes everything in the pot.
  • Hey means "halb," or "half" in Yiddish. If the dreidel lands with a hey facing up, the spinner gets half of the pot.
  • Shin means "shtel," which is Yiddish for "put in." Pey means "pay." If the dreidel lands with either a shin or a pey facing up, the player adds a game piece to the pot.

Once a player runs out of game pieces they are out of the game.

Origins of the Dreidel

Jewish tradition has it that a game similar to the dreidel was popular during the rule of Antiochus IV, who ruled in present-day Syria during the second century BCE. During this period, Jews were not free to openly practice their religion, so when they gathered to study the 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.

The Hebrew Letters on a Dreidel

Four wooden dreidels - Jewish spinning tops.
Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

A dreidel has one Hebrew letter on each side. Outside of Israel, those letters are: נ (Nun), ג (Gimmel), ה (Hay), and ש (Shin), which stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Haya Sham." This phrase means "A great miracle happened there [in Israel]."

The miracle referred to is the miracle of the Hanukkah oil, which by tradition occurred some 2200 years ago. As the story goes, a king from Damascus ruling over the Jews forced them to worship Greek gods. Jewish rebels fighting for their freedom reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, but when attempting to rededicate the temple, they could only find enough oil to keep the flames burning for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, allowing them enough time to process more oil and keep the eternal flame lit.

The Dreidel Song

The popular Dreidel Song was written in 1927 by New York composer Samuel Goldfarb during the Tin Pan Alley era. It didn't become popular right away, but in the 1950s, as Jewish culture was becoming more mainstream, it took off. Today, it is a holiday classic—though it has no relationship to actually playing the dreidel game. There are several newer versions of the lyrics and the song has been recorded in many styles, but original lyrics are:

Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel
I made you out of clay
And when you’re dry and ready
Oh Dreidel we shall play