December 24, 2014

The Wisdom Of The Dreidel: Comfort in an Impossible World

The Wisdom Of The Dreidel: Comfort in an Impossible World

Two dreidels from the author’s extensive collection.
Two dreidels from the author’s extensive collection.
Can a simple top, a delightful toy for children, really speak to me in the aftermath of tragedy? In the aftermath of a Har Nof?

Although some might suggest otherwise, questioning how a mere toy could possibly carry the weight of such an event, I believe the dreidel can in fact afford insight into how to wrestle with such difficult and seemingly unfathomable events. In doing so, it offers a hint to why I am so enamored with my ever-growing dreidel collection; a collection I began almost thirteen years ago when I met my beloved wife.

I remember that moment so clearly. It was the second night of Chanukah. Yes, it was a miracle for me to have met my dear Clary. A Chanukah miracle. But even that remembrance begets a Chanukah question. In my heart, the dreidel came to symbolize that wonderful meeting and yet, wouldn’t a single grandiose dreidel have been enough to commemorate that life-transforming moment?

Why did I feel moved – some might suggest compelled – to continue to amass dreidel after dreidel, growing my collection to nearly a thousand dreidels from the United States, Israel, Spain, Hungary, India, Russia, Scotland, Brazil… indeed from all over the world. So many wondrous tops! So many that anyone who comes into the room where I keep my many volumes of books will find themselves transported by the sight of them.

No single dreidel for me. Rather, hundreds of them – made from a broad array of materials, in all sizes and colors.

It is a rare visitor to our home who doesn’t view my collection and then – smile fading from his or her face – ask, “Rabbi Safran, of all the things in the world to collect, why dreidels?”

Lest you think my collection is simply whimsy, an opportunity to recall the delightful evenings of childhood when the joy of Chanukah filled my household, let me share with you my response.

“What,” I ask, “does the dreidel teach us? What is its message?”

So much of Chanukah is presented in a way to delight young children. The dreidel and gelt. The sufganiyot. The games and songs commemorating the miracle of a small, dedicated army of fighters overcoming fierce oppression and rededicating our sanctuary.

And let us not forget the miracle of the oil!

But the story and challenge of Chanukah – and its ultimate miracle – is far beyond a child’s simple story. Likewise, all the elements of that story are more powerful and commanding than how they are often portrayed in the telling. Indeed, the “toy” dreidel represents not simplicity but the complexity and hidden nature of history and miracles.

Just as the dreidel spins and lands with only one side up, history and experience also show us only some of reality. The four sides of the dreidel teach that we are never truly seeing the whole story and that there is always another side that remains hidden to us.

When we begin to grasp the deep truth of the dreidel, we come to understand that with so much beyond our understanding, we have to have faith in hidden miracles and in God. We cannot comprehend the meaning of Har Nof just as we cannot understand the countless other events that mark our long history.

So we return to the dreidel. Four panels. A nun, a pei or shin, a gimmel, and a hei. Four letters, representing the message of Chanukah – “A great miracle happened here/there.” As it spins and falls, showing one letter, it necessarily hides another. What is plain to us is only what we see. We too often fail to find comfort or meaning in what is hidden to us.

When the dreidel falls on the hei we go on playing the game, never considering that on the other side of the dreidle is the nun neis for “miracle.” We see the “there was” but we are blind to the miracle. A gimmel – “great” – hides the pei/shin, the “here” or “there.”

We spin on and on and on, missing so many of God’s messages to us. Why? Because we see only that which is plain to us, failing to look deeper in order to find that which is less obvious or hidden. However, our blindness does not mean that what is on the other side of the dreidel is not an equally important part of the reality we perceive.

Bayamim hahem – in days of yore. What is vital is not what was but whether what was has everlasting value to us. Many of the holidays listed in Megillat Ta’anit are not celebrated because they fail this simple test. They have meaning only in their own time, in the past.

Chanukah – with its silly little dreidel – continues to be celebrated because its message and its power continue to speak to us today. Ba’zeman hazeh.

Bridging the near-insurmountable distance between hayamim hahem to ba’zeman hazeh is the mystical gift of our survival – physical, spiritual and religious. The bridge that carries us from the hei of the dreidle to the neis is the same gift that allowed the congregation of Har Nof to celebrate a bris the very day after the unspeakable events there.

A great miracle is happening here.

In Days of Deliverance, Rav Soloveitchik notes that Chanukah has a universal appeal; it is “…a holiday of political victories, a holiday of the smashing of political might. Matityahu and his sons had the strength and the courage to confront the Syrian-Greek legions, to liberate the city of Jerusalem and its Temple, and to re-establish an independent Jewish kingdom. This history of dramatic bravery appeals to all, Jew and non-Jew, especially when the revolutionaries compose a small group, unorganized and poorly armed, yet unafraid of declaring war on a mighty enemy.”

However, having said that, he asks the deeper question: “Is Chanukah merely a holiday telling us a heroic story of battles won and political victories gained, like the American Fourth of July, or the French Fourteenth of July? A political event, even one of the greatest importance, can be celebrated only as long as the people view it as a turning point in history, the beginning of a new epoch in independence…. However, a political victory loses its meaning when the people later lose their independence and the victory ends in a downfall.

“If Chanukah had been simply a holiday of political freedom, its whole meaning would have evaporated with the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. Chanukah’s fate would have been exactly like that of all the other holidays of the Second Temple era which were enumerated in Megillat Ta’anit…”

As is clearly pointed out in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 19b), “One was forbidden [to fast] on those days named in Megillat Ta’anit when the Temple was in existence, because they were days of gladness at that time. Once the Temple was no longer in existence, one was permitted [to fast] because they are days of mourning to them.”

That being the case, asks the Rav, “Where is the logic in celebrating Chanukah during thousands of years of exile, martyrdom, ghettos, pogroms, and suffering? How small and worthless do the Maccabees’ victories seem when compared to the cruel political downfalls that we have suffered?”

Matityahu and his sons did not start a revolt due to political pressure. They, along with the rest of the people, accepted their political suffering. It was due to the Greeks’ hatred for our spiritual essence, our difference – our Torah. It was the same hatred Haman felt when he complained, “Their laws are different from those of every people.” It is the same hatred we felt during the Holocaust and, indeed, during the most recent expression of that hatred, Har Nof.

It was easy to understand the statement by the director of the Zaka rescue and recovery organization likening the scene he witnessed in Har Nof to pictures from the Holocaust.

The comparison rings true, not just in the images but on a deeper level. How did we celebrate a bris the day after the tragedy of Har Nof? How did we rebuild the Jewish nation after the Holocaust?

How can we comprehend such a rebirth? Just as the toppled dreidel is picked up to spin again, so too do we go on. The day after the tragedy at Har Nof there was davening, there was learning, there was celebration. Our DNA is defined by renewal. No one can stop us. We are God’s nation. He is Eternal. So then are we.

When we are massacred in shul we return the next day to pray and to celebrate a baby boy’s bris. When the gates of Auschwitz slammed shut, the gates of Haifa opened.

Chanukah is not about Matityahu’s military victory. That did not last. What did last to this very day is the purification and renewal of Jewish life. Difficult to grasp? Seems senseless? Walk the length and breadth of Israel and see for yourself.

In another essay, Rav Soloveitchik expresses similar thoughts:

“One can see that which is revealed, but not that which is concealed. The Kabbalists speak about the antithesis between the hidden world and the revealed world. These terms express the idea that most things that humans can sense are only the last phase in a long evolutionary process that unfolded quietly, far from the perception of the human eye, which can discern only things that are ripe and complete.”

The Rav points out that the Hasmoneans fought not against an imperial power but for the purity of the Jewish soul, in their own time and forever. They fought and won to show that the people can be reborn and renewed. That is the miracle.

When the dreidel shows a gimmel it is good to remember that on the other, unseen, side is the nun.There, sometimes hidden, untold miracles abound. We are all dreidels. We keep spinning. That’s why I continue to acquire more dreidels – the miracles of our eternal existence never cease to create renewed amazement.

May we always seek the hidden and find the miraculous of the Eternal even when we are confronted by the pain of the temporal.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at

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