How Do You Play the Game Dreidel?


Dreidel is a traditional game of chance typically played during Hanukkah. A dreidel is a spinning top with four sides, with one of four Hebrew letters, נ‎ (Nun), ג‎ (Gimel), ה (He), and ש (Shin) inscribed on each. Taken together, the four letters stand for the Hebrew phrase “nes gadol haya sham,” which means “a great miracle occurred there.” The word dreidel is descended from the German word “drehen,” and means “to turn” in Yiddish. In Hebrew, the word used for a dreidel is “sevivon,” also meaning “to turn.”

Origin of the Dreidel
The game of dreidel is thought to have originated in the second century BCE during the rule of Antiochus IV, in the Seleucid Empire. Jews were persecuted by the ruling class, and were not permitted to openly practice their religion. The dreidel was used as a cover for religious activities, such as studying the Torah. When soldiers or government officials were in the area, Jews who had gathered to study and pray quickly put their books away and began playing with the dreidel to avoid questioning and imprisonment.

Rules of Play
Dreidel can be played with any number of people, but the game works best if played by a group of 2-6. Each player begins with an equal number of game tokens, usually somewhere around 10-15. Tokens can be any small item, such as chocolate gelt, matchsticks, raisins, or actual currency.

At the beginning of each round, every participant donates one token to the pot in the center of the circle. Additionally, participants must donate one token to the center each time the pot becomes empty or only contains one token.

After each participant puts a token in the pot, the players take turns spinning the dreidel. After the dreidel lands, the participant either takes tokens from the pot, puts tokens into the pot, or does nothing, in accordance with which symbol lands face up. There are four possibilities:

  • Nun, or "nichts” in Yiddish, means "nothing.” If the dreidel lands with nun facing up, the person who spun it does nothing, and the next person spins.
  • Gimmel, or "ganz" in Yiddish, means "everything." If the dreidel lands with gimmel facing up, the person who spun takes everything from the pot.
  • Hey, or "halb” in Yiddish, means "half.” If the dreidel lands with hey facing up, the person who spun takes half of the tokens from the pot. If there are an odd number of tokens, they take half of the total tokens plus one additional token.
  • Shin, or "shtel" in Yiddish means "put in." Pey in Yiddish means "pay." If the dreidel lands with either shin or pey facing up, the person who spun adds one token to the pot.

The game is complete when one person has taken control of all tokens in the pot. As individual players lose their tokens, they can choose to either drop out of the game or to ask the other players to give them a loan.