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During Hanukkah, Jewish children often play a simple gambling game using a 4-sided top called a dreidel. Each face of the dreidel has a Hebrew letter, one of which is called nun.
The dreidel game is played for small tokens; often toothpicks, chocolate coins or M&M candies are used.
To begin the game, each player places a token in the central "pot," similar to an ante in poker. The players then take turns spinning the dreidel, and the result is determined by whichever letter is facing up when the dreidel comes to a rest.
- Nun: "Nothing" -- The player neither gives nor receives.
- Gimmel: "All" -- The player takes the entire pot.
- Heh: "Half" -- The player takes half the pot.
- Shin: "Put" -- The player adds to the pot.
When the pot is emptied, the players ante once again, and play resumes.
Hanukkah recalls the reign of the Greek king Antiochus IV, who repressed the Jews and forbade the study of the sacred Torah. According to the jewish101.com Web site, people who gathered for Torah study would use a gambling game as a cover story. That has come down through history in the form of the dreidel.
Under the leadership of Matthias and his son, Judah Maccabee, a Jewish Army (the Maccabees) rebelled against Antiochus and reclaimed the holy Temple. Ritual required that a lamp be kept burning in the temple all night, but there was enough pure oil for only one day. Yet the lamp was said to have burned for eight full days.
The letters on the dreidel recall the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which translates to "a great miracle happened there." The nightly lighting of the Hanukkah menorah also recalls the miracle. Even some of the foods traditionally eaten during the holiday recall the miracle of the oil. Jews often eat fried foods, and fried potato pancakes called latkes are a favorite.
You can play an interactive online version of the dreidel game at the jewish101 Web site.