Entry in progress—B.P.
A dreidel (Yiddish: דרײדל dreydl plural: dreydlekh, Hebrew: סביבון Sevivon) is a four-sided spinning top, played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The dreidel is a Jewish variant on the teetotum, a gambling toy found in many European cultures.
Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin), which together form the acronym for “נס גדול היה שם” (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “a great miracle happened there"). These letters also form a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: Nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht ("nothing"), Hei stands for halb ("half"), Gimel for gants ("all"), and Shin for shtel ayn ("put in"). In Israel, the fourth side of most dreidels is inscribed with the letter פ (Pei), rendering the acronym, נס גדול היה פה, Nes Gadol Hayah Poh—"A great miracle happened here” referring to the miracle occurring in the land of Israel. Some stores in Haredi neighborhoods sell the ש dreidels.
According to Jewish tradition, when the Jews were in caves learning Torah, hiding from the Greeks, dreidel became a popular game to play. Legend has it that when the teacher would hear the Greek soldiers approaching, he would instruct the children to hide their torah scrolls and take out their dreidels instead.
The Yiddish word “dreydl” comes from the word “dreyen” ("to turn”, compare to “drehen”, meaning the same in German). The Hebrew word “sevivon” comes from the root “SBB” ("to turn") and was invented by Itamar Ben-Avi (the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) when he was 5 years old. Hayyim Nahman Bialik used a different word, “kirkar” (from the root “KRKR” – “to spin"), in his poems, but it was not adopted into spoken Hebrew.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
Etymology: < Yiddish dreydl, < Middle High German dræ(je)n to turn (German drehen).
Chiefly N. Amer.
a. A four-sided spinning-top, with one of the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, he, and shin on each face, used chiefly in a children’s game played esp. at the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.
b. The game, resembling put-and-take, played with this top.
1934 S. Mazer Yossele’s Holiday 50 The belfer will soon be here with the dredles. Your father left you Hanukkah money, and you may buy one.
1940 B. M. Edidin Jewish Holidays & Festivals vi. 97 The younger children are playing trendel or dreidel. This is a four-winged spinning top with four Hebrew letters.
22 December 1916, The Jewish Child, pg. 4 (it reads page 2, but it follows page 3):
A CHANUKAH DREIDLE
“When I was a little boy in Russia,” began Grandpa, just as she was hoping he would, “we didn’t have such toy menorahs. The Chanukah toy we played with was the ‘dreidle,’ which is a kind of top. When you spun it, it went round and round, and flew about the table until, gradually, it would begin to slow down and finally fall on one side. That was the time we watched it, because a great deal depended on the side it should fall on. We might lose or win, goodness knows how many candies or nuts or apples if the ‘dreidle’ wanted us to.”
“What do you mean, Grandpa, “you’re teasing!”
“No,” said Grandpa. “That’s just how it was. You see, there was a Hebrew letter on each side of the dreidle, on one side ‘Nun,’ on the other side ‘Gimmel,’ on the third side ‘Heh,’ and on the fourth one ‘Shin.’ These words stood for the words ‘Nes Gadohl Haya Shorn’ (A Great Miracle Was Wroug’ht There.) It refers to the time after Judah the Mac-cabee had conquered the Syrians, and driven them out of Jerusalem. The people cleaned and repaired and purified the Temple from all the harm that the heathens had done to it, and they gathered to relight the lamps of the Menorah, and re-dedicate the Temple to God. But what did they find? Only one tiny bottle of pure oil—all the rest had been desecrated. And the oil in this flask would only last for one day, while to prepare more oil properly would take eight days. And they had hoped so much to rekindle the everlasting light in the eight lamps of the holy candlestick! Still, they tried lighting the lamps, just the same. And that little, precious flaskful burned for eight days until the fresh oil was ready. That’s why we say ‘Nes Gadohl Hayah Shorn.’
“But we boys gave the four letters own own meaning. ‘Nun,’ was ‘Nichts’ (nothing). ‘Gimmel’ was ‘Gar’ (meaning ‘all’ ); ‘Heh’ we made ‘Halb’ (half) and ‘Shin,’ ‘Stelle’ (Put one on). So that when a boy took his turn and spun the dreidle, he looked eagerly to see which letter was uppermost when it fell. If the letter ‘Nun’, was on top, it meant that he had won nothing. On the other hand, if ‘Gimmel’ were on top, it meant that he had won all the candies and nuts in the pool. If the ‘Heh’ side was up, he won half the ‘nasherai.’ But ‘Shin’ was the most unlucky of all, because that not only meant that he hadn’t won anything, but that he would have to put one of his own candies into the pool.”
“Out would come our ‘dreidlach’—and the candy and fruit and pieces of honeycake we had brought from home or else bought (Col. 3—ed.) for our ‘Chanukah gelt’!”