The History of Dreidel

Sure, playing dreidel is a time-honored Hanukkah tradition: but why DO we spin lively tops? Who first made dreidels? And what do they really have to do with Hanukkah? Read on to learn more.

Why Dreidels?

Did you know that “dreidel” is a Yiddish word, meaning “spinning top?” In Hebrew, children might play with a sevivon instead of a dreidel (although that means the same thing).

A legend explains why we play dreidel on Hanukkah: In the time of the Maccabees, when the Greeks didn’t allow Jews to study the Torah, Jews would learn in secret. Whenever the authorities would approach, children would quickly hide their books and take out their spinning tops.

What Do the Letters Mean?

The Hebrew letters on the dreidel – Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin – stand for “a great miracle happened there” (Nes Gadol Haya Sham נס גדול היה שם ). In Israel, where the Hanukkah story took place, the Shin (for Sham, “there”) is replaced by Peh (for Po, “here”).

How Do We Play?


  • Dreidel
  • Small items like candies, beans, coins, or raisins to use as tokens


  • Seat players in a circle. Give each one 10 tokens.
  • Have each player put one token into the center – the “pot.”
  • Have players take turns spinning the dreidel. When the dreidel lands, the letter facing up tells the player what to do.
  • Any time the pot is emptied, each player needs to contribute one token to the pot before the next player spins.
  • Once players have no tokens left, they’re out of the game. The last person remaining is the winner!

Print out your very own set of instructions.

Bonus: Science Lesson

Why do dreidels spin? Is there a “right” or “best” way to spin them?

To spin a dreidel, a person pinches the top handle between their finger and thumb, balances the top on its point and twists. Since a person pushes down to balance the top, the twisting motion applies something called torque. This is a force that causes an object, like a dreidel to rotate on an axis or point. When this force is applied to a top or dreidel, the resting energy of the object turns into kinetic energy and it moves. Pretty cool, right?

Do a simple experiment with your dreidels – do they spin better if you grip the top handle more tightly? Can you spin several at once? Which spin longer, large dreidels or smaller ones?


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How to Play Dreidel Printable
The Hanukkah Story

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