A Great Miracle Happened Where? The Origin of the Dreidel

Four Hebrew letters – Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Pei – tell the story of our people. But did you know that the dreidel was not originally a Jewish custom?

Hanukkah celebrations in Ra'anana, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

Four letters – נ Nun,  ג Gimel,  ה Hei and פ Pei – tell the story of the Jewish people, or at least one of our most famous stories. This would be the tale of the Greek villain Antiochus who decided he was going to, once and for all, deal with that unruly lot who continually insisted on publicly boasting about how chosen, wonderful and one of a kind they were. Antiochus proceeded to spite the Jews and place idols in the very heart of their cherished Temple.

With the help of some handy divine intervention and a bit of ingenuity on the part of the Jewish military, the Maccabees managed to prevail over their enemy who had besieged Jerusalem, thus proving to the Hellenized Jewish elite that trust should be placed only in God and His Torah. To top it all off, a small cruse of oil was found in the Temple that would miraculously last for eight days of light – seven more than expected. This was the miracle referenced by the letters Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Pei, which stand for Nes Gadol Haya Poh – “a Great Miracle Happened Here”. These are the letters imprinted on the dreidel, the game most commonly associated with the festival of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah celebrations in Ra’anana, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

But do you know where the dreidel bearing these four letters originated? Here’s a hint – it is not an ancient Jewish custom.

Many Jewish holiday customs and traditions are rooted in the distant, oftentimes forgotten, past: Why do we fry latkes on Hanukkah and what were they made of before potatoes were imported from America in the 16th century? Why is it that we wave flags on Simchat Torah? How can we be expected to remember this stuff?

Hanukkah celebrations in Ra’anana, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

On occasion, as in the case of the dreidel, Rabbis and Halachic scholars are presented with a simple, undeniable fact they must contend with: On Hanukkah, we play dreidel. This raises the need to find (or invent) a Halachic explanation or story relating to what was, up until then, a slightly vague tradition of unclear origin.

In the 19th century, a certain group of rabbis who were faced with this question, came up with a creative answer: The dreidel, they explained, is a game Jews used to play whenever a Greek person was nearby. The idea was to fool the Greek into thinking the Jews were playing a harmless game, while hiding the fact that they were actually engaged in the forbidden study of Torah. The truth is a bit more surprising.

The origin of the dreidel is not entirely clear, yet most scholars agree it evolved from an English toy known as a ‘Teetotum’. It may be that the game was first brought to England by Roman soldiers.

Whether or not that was the case, this version of the spinning top had spread all over England and Ireland by the 16th century. During the 19th century, four letters were imprinted on the dreidel’s four sides, each representing an action in a gambling game:

N for Nothing

T for Take all

H for Half

P for Put in

When the game reached Germany, two of the letters were replaced:  T (Take All) became G (Gant), while S was the German letter used for Put In. H and N remained the same.

One theory links the acceptance of the dreidel as a favored gambling game to the fact that Jews in Germany were forbidden leave their homes on Christmas. With the synagogue off limits, more secular pursuits would occasionally replace Torah study during this time of the year. The Latin-German letters, however, were eventually substituted with Hebrew letters: Nun (נ), Gimel (ג), Hei (ה)and Shin (ש). For the purposes of the game, the meaning of each letter remained the same as in German.

A dreidel from the Dreidel Collection at the Center for Jewish Art, the National Library of Israel

So, when did the dreidel become a Hanukkah game?

Because of the common overlap between Christmas and Hanukkah, as the years went by the gambling game taken up by Jews in Germany became an innocent children’s game played on the Festival of Lights. The symbols were also given a different historical religious meaning – they became an acronym for the Hebrew words: Nes Gadol Haya Sham (“A great miracle happened there”) –the miracle of the victory over Antiochus and the cruse of oil.

In Israel, the Shin (ש) on the dreidel was replaced with a Pei (פ), signifying that a great miracle happened Here (poh), in the Land of Israel, which was no longer the distant There (sham).

Dreidels from the Dreidel Collection at the Center for Jewish Art, the National Library of Israel

The Life of Abraham: Scenes from Hebrew Manuscripts

The trials and tests of Abraham the Patriarch have been explored time and again in Western art and literature

Abraham reaches for the boy, from Yehiel Ben Moshe David's Pinkas HaMohel, 1844, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, USA, 18th and 19th centuries

Since the completion of the ‘Book of Books’, its countless readers have derived inspiration from the great struggles, tests and challenges its heroes faced. It is therefore no surprise that the numerous challenges experienced by one of the Bible’s most renowned and beloved heroes – Abraham the Patriarch – are explored again and again in Western art and literature.

One of the themes most commonly adapted by medieval illuminators of Jewish manuscripts was the sentencing of Abraham to death by Nimrod, King of Ur of the Chaldees, by having him cast into a burning furnace. This story does not appear anywhere in the Bible but in Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, an ancient midrash comprised by Jewish sages to complete the missing pieces of the story of Abraham.

In the famous story, Abraham is cast into a burning furnace for rejecting idolatry and miraculously survives at the hand of divine intervention. In three manuscripts written during the 14th century, the heavenly intervention is illustrated in different ways: The Carpentras Passover Mahzor, held in the British Library, shows Abraham surrounded by flames, as two angels (distinguishable by their wings) enter the furnace to rescue him.

The Carpentras Passover Mahzor | The British Library, London, England, 14th century

The second depiction of Abraham being thrown into the burning furnace is found in the Leipzig Mahzor which was composed sometime around the year 1320. The Mahzor, located at the Leipzig University Library, shows the hand of God himself rescuing Abraham from the burning furnace.

The Leipzig Mahzor | Leipzig University Library, Leipzig, Germany, 14th century

The third depiction appears in the Barcelona Hagaddah, a Passover Haggadah composed in Barcelona around the year 1320: King Nimrod is again shown ordering his subjects to throw Abraham into the burning furnace. Once more, winged angels intervene to ensure Abraham is not consumed by the flames.

A Passover Hagaddah, Nusach Sefard | The British Library, London, England, 14th century

Abraham’s rescue from the burning furnace is not the only scene to be illustrated by these medieval artists. A few hundred years later we find an even more notable scene, perhaps the most famous episode in the the Hebrew Bible – the Binding of Isaac.

The Italian mohel, Matsliah Yehiel Ben Moshe David, maintained a register of his work for over fifty years. The first entry in this register, known as a Pinkas HaMohel, was logged during the Hebrew calendar year 5552 (corresponding to the year 1792 in the Gregorian calendar) and the last is dated 5604 (1844). Most of the register is dedicated to recordings of the circumcision ceremonies he conducted over this period lasting more than fifty years.

The register entries are consistent and contain the dates on which the mohel circumcised the eight-day-old infants; the names of their fathers; each child’s place of birth (e.g. ‘Parme’ – the Italian city Parma); who held the baby on his lap during the circumcision (the godfather or sandak); and who served as kvatter (the person appointed to carry the child to be circumcised). The mohel then recorded the baby’s name, add the blessing: “May he enter into Torah, into marriage, and into good deeds, and so may it be Your will, let us say, Amen.”

Aside from these records of his work, referred to by the register’s owner as Peratim (particulars), the register also consists of a few songs and prayers for the circumcision ceremony, pictures of scenes from the Bible and an “Introduction to the particulars”. The first picture in the register is of the Binding of Isaac. The association here is a curious one: In the Book of Genesis, the Binding of Isaac appears after the covenant between God and Abraham had already been made. Isaac should have already been circumcised by that time.

A register of circumcision | The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, USA, 18th and 19th centuries

This mohel illuminator wasn’t the only one to confuse the Binding of Isaac with the circumcisions of Abraham and Isaac which took place during the covenant between God and Abraham in the earlier Torah portion ‘Lech-Lecha‘ (Genesis 12:1–17:27). In another illustration, which appears in a copy of Sefer Evronot, an even clearer allusion to circumcision is made in the depiction of drops of Isaac’s blood. This work was written and illustrated in Prussia in the Hebrew year of 5476 (1716). Staff members from the National Library’s manuscripts department hypothesized that the illustrations were mainly influenced by what the illustrator may have seen in his own environment, and likely also by various illustrated plaques which would have been common in nearby Christian communities.

Sefer Evronot | The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel, 18th century


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The Return of the Lost Siddur of the Jews of Catalonia

Following years of work, we take a look at a reconstructed medieval prayer book used by the Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca

“May the Creator who conceived the entire world in His glory be sanctified and exalted. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. A day when a new window has opened in the heavens and the streams of our prayers return to their stead. I give thanks before you, King living and eternal, to have been privileged to publish the prayer book of the holy community of Catalonia in an edition adapted to our times and to restore the original splendor and administer the customs of the holy communities that lived and thrived in the Middle Ages in the lands of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca.”

With these words Dr. Idan Perez begins the Siddur Catalunya—the first complete reconstruction of the lost prayer book once used by the great pre-expulsion sages Nachmanides, Rabenu Yonah Gerondi, and Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, as well the Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca, then independent kingdoms before their unification under the crown of Aragon and later Spain.

Dr. Perez, now head of the Rare Books Department at the National Library of Israel, worked on the restoration project for three years. The prayer book, which was never printed in its entirety (except as a Mahzor for the High Holy Days), was recreated based on six separate manuscripts. The earliest (a manuscript preserved in the Ginzburg collection in Moscow) dates to around 1352, more than one hundred years before the expulsion. The last of the manuscripts, preserved in Rome in the Biblioteca Casanatense, was copied in the year 1507, less than twenty years after the expulsion. “I didn’t add a single word of my own, everything came from the manuscripts,” he explains.

The primary (and earliest) manuscript on which Dr. Idan Perez relied, Moscow, Ginzburg 821

The first major obstacle facing the restorer was the inaccurate information that appeared in the catalog of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts. “Sometimes other rites of prayer were (wrongly) mentioned in the manuscripts as being the Catalan rite (nusach), and the manuscripts that were written in the Catalan rite were marked as other versions. The errors in the catalog stem from the fact that in the past, the information was copied from printed catalogs and not checked, and also because the Catalan prayer rite had not been thoroughly researched until now.”

Dr. Perez consulted with experts of the relevant prayer rites and with their help, prepared a list of manuscripts that contained without doubt the Catalan rite. “I then prepared a list of characteristics of the rite and the various customs that I found in the manuscripts (this list appears in the introduction to the prayer book).

I used Manuscript A (Ginzburg) as the basis. As a first step, I prepared tables of contents for all the manuscripts. I compared all the parts of the prayer book as they appeared in all six manuscripts and recorded the differences. In the prayer book, I used the earliest version as the basis, noting differences in versions or spelling in the footnotes and sometimes in square brackets in the text. The parts of the prayer book that are not found in Manuscript A were copied from the other manuscripts and this was noted in the footnotes.”

A request put forth by Nachmanides, published for the first time ever in the Siddur Catalunya, from the latest manuscript on which Dr. Idan Perez relied, Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome, 2741

Whoever speaks with Dr. Idan Perez cannot help but notice his Spanish (more precisely, his Catalonian) accent. I asked him how he came to reconstruct the lost prayer book, “I am a native of Barcelona and I was always intrigued to know what the ‘Catalan nusach’ which the sages referred to actually was. As we know, this ancient prayer style did not survive because the communities of the Catalan Jews did not survive the riots, persecutions and the Holocaust. Today, there is no community that prays according to this nusach. I began my historical research about the Jews who fled Catalonia after the riots of 1391 and the expulsion in 1492 and reached important findings in the communities of the expelled Catalans in Italy, the Ottoman Empire and Algiers.” Thus, he learned about the lost prayer book and his ultimate goal became clear: “To restore the full text and be as faithful as possible to its earliest version.”

To support the project, click here.


Frontispiece of the Siddur Catalunya, according to the rite of the Holy Community of Catalonia


Morning prayer rite from Siddur Catalunya


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Asking Forgiveness from Baruch Spinoza

One of the greatest Jewish philosophers of all time? Or a heretic? The story of Baruch Spinoza


A postcard featuring the painting "Spinoza" by the Jewish painter Samuel Hirszenberg, 1907. Spinoza is pictured walking away dejectedly after the expulsion from the Jewish community was imposed on him

On July 27th, 1656, an unusual entry appeared in the community ledger of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jews – a decree announcing the excommunication of a 24 year-old Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza. The writ of expulsion read:

The Senhores of the Mahamad make it known that they have long since been cognizant of the wrong opinions and behavior of Baruch d’Espinoza, and tried various means and promises to dissuade him from his evil ways. But as they effected no improvement, obtaining on the contrary more information every day of the horrible heresies which he practised and taught, and of the monstrous actions which he performed… they decided… that the same Espinoza should be excommunicated…

After the judgment of the Angels, and with that of the Saints, we excommunicate, expel and curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of all the Holy Congregation, in front of the holy Scrolls with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts which are written therein, with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys, and with all the curses which are written in the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not pardon him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law, and the Lord will destroy his name from under the Heavens, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the firmament, which are written in the Book of the Law. But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that nobody should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.

But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that nobody should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.

(Translation: Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University)


Baruch Spinoza – The Quintessential Heretic

It is not clear when exactly the young Baruch Spinoza decided to begin questioning the religion of his forefathers, but it likely happened at an early age. While regularly attending synagogue and keeping the mitzvoth, Spinoza developed his philosophical and theological ideas through an intense study of the Torah. The more he read, the more aware he became of the many contradictions contained within the holy text. As described in his Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza concluded that the Torah’s laws were valid, but only in the political framework established by the ancient Hebrews in the Land of Israel. He claimed that these laws often contradicted the laws of nature as they were understood in Spinoza’s time.

Baruch ‘Benedict’ Spinoza, 1632-1677

Spinoza did not abandon faith in the Eternal, but rather placed the Eternal (that which is divine) within the realm of this world. Spinoza’s God (in contrast to the Judeo-Christian view of God) is not an independent entity, separate from the universe. Spinoza’s God is the universe. In this philosophy, Spinoza developed the foundations of a discipline that would later come to be called “Biblical Criticism.” He created (perhaps for the first time in history) a critical and historical interpretation of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. His interpretation abandons many traditional understandings in favor of using logical and scientific methods to understand the text.

Even in the relatively liberal and enlightened atmosphere of Amsterdam, Spinoza (a descendant of the Portuguese conversos) was disowned by his community. These victims of the Inquisition, descendants of forced converts to Christianity, were now working to bring those of Jewish descent back to their original faith. They saw the words and actions of Spinoza as a threat the delicate fabric of life they had worked so hard to cultivate for themselves. Baruch Spinoza was forced to find a new place in society as a faith-less citizen and philosopher. Historians would later come to refer to him as “the first secular Jew.”

ציור ביתו של שפינוזה
A drawing of Spinoza’s house, from the Avraham Schwadron collection

Throughout the generations, the Jewish people have had a complex relationship with the figure and writings of Baruch Spinoza. In his lifetime, he was forced to communicate his teachings to his few students in abbreviated, discreet form. He published his public writings anonymously, but his most far-reaching book, Ethics, was discovered in a drawer in his home following his death.

For hundreds of years, Jews continued to reject Spinoza and his ideas. Even after he died and his offenses against the Portuguese Jewish community were long forgotten, his ideas were regarded as heresy and an intentional harassment of the basic tenets of Judaism. For more than a century Spinoza’s name was shunned, not to be mentioned in public circles. It was the great thinkers of the Enlightenment who first began to turn the tide in favor of some of the ideas of the “heretic”.


The First Signs of Support for Spinoza

With the rise of European Enlightenment, Judaism came under assault from an unexpected direction. In addition to the traditional Christian condemnation, which denounced the Jews for rejecting their Messiah and continuing to adhere to an outdated set of religious edicts, the Enlightenment philosophers also began to condemn the Jews for refusing to abandon their religion and integrate into the modern, rational world that the Enlightenment sought to establish.

Spinoza was rebranded by these thinkers as a martyr of the Enlightenment, a victim who had bravely defied the rabbinical establishment of his time in an attempt to bring about change from within. Most chose to ignore his overall undermining of the fundamentals of religion: the abandonment of the idea of revelation, the belief in the statute of limitations of religious law and his identification of the universe itself with God. But as stark opponents of the Hasidic movement, they strongly embraced Spinoza’s rejection of the mystical dimension of Judaism.

The well-known Hebrew writer and intellectual, Mordecai Zeev Feuerberg, treated the rejected Jewish philosopher with great respect and harshly denounced his own people for Spinoza’s poor treatment at their hands. He even went on to draw parallels between Spinoza and Immanuel Kant.


מרדכי זאב פיאברג
Mordecai Zeev Feuerberg, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel


Spinoza’s Place in the New Jewish Narrative

The image of a rogue rebel who stands for what he believes is right, even in the face of immense pressure, was precisely the example that the Zionist movement sought out for its leaders and messengers. Spinoza fit this narrative well.

In a lecture marking the 250th anniversary of his death in 1924, the historian and scholar of Hebrew literature, Joseph Klausner, rescinded the excommunication of Spinoza. “To Spinoza the Jew we call out . . . from atop Mount Scopus, out of our new sanctuary—the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—the ban is rescinded! Judaism’s wrongdoing against you is hereby lifted, and whatever was your sin against her shall be forgiven. Our brother are you, our brother are you, our brother are you!”

It seems this was the declaration many had been waiting for in the Land of Israel. Spinoza began to appear as a subject of research and debate in dozens of articles and books. In 1932, Yehoshua Yehuda Cohen wrote in the pages of Doar Ha-Yom that “it is impossible to say that we do not now relate to Spinoza with all due respect.” Cohen tried to make clear that even though Spinoza had come to be regarded with far greater acceptance than was afforded to him by the Converso community in Amsterdam, his writings should still be read in a critical and careful fashion – just as Spinoza himself had read the Jewish scriptures.

In 1951, a handwritten, original copy of Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise was brought to Israel. It was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who took the importance of Spinoza’s contribution to new heights when he wrote an article in Davar in 1953, stating that it was the duty of Israeli citizens to return “to our Hebrew language and culture the original writings of the most profound philosopher to have risen up among the Hebrew people in the last two-thousand years.”

“We Will Fix the Mistake,” an article by David Ben-Gurion, published in Davar on December 25th, 1953

Today, no work that aims to survey the history of Jewish thought can be considered complete without a mention of “The Philosopher’s Philosopher” – Baruch Spinoza.


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