Lesson #295: The Dreidel

One of my friends is about to embark on a year-long, round-the-world trip with his wife,* so last night, he had a “drink all the booze” party. I don’t think we succeeded, but we did put a hurt on it.

Anyway, a mutual friend, who was also in attendance, and I got to talking about dreidels somehow. As he (and his fiancee) are Jewish and I have never actually bothered to learn what purpose a dreidel serves, I asked.

Legend has it that while the dreidel is actually just the game I’ve always known it to be, historically, it served a practical purpose. In the eras of history when Jews were not allowed to study the Torah, it was brought out as a distracting device whenever the powers-that-be (usually soldiers) came around. “No sir, of course we weren’t studying…we were totally just gambling.”**

In reality, the dreidel is based on a 16th century Anglo-Irish game called Totum (or Teetotum) that was played with a four-sided top. Each side of the top had a letter dictating the exact same instructions as the ones the dreidel gives (take all, take half, put in, or do nothing). The letters on the dreidel, however, are derived from a later, German version of the game.***

*It should go without saying that I’m totally jealous of this

**Or as my friend put it, “usually you hide the vice in the sacred text, not the other way around.”

***More information here and here.

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