Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A kid's game? Maybe not.

A dreidel is one of the Hanukkah symbols. Basically, it's a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. You spin it, and whichever side lands face up dictates what you do. In a nutshell, it's a kind of gambling. I remember using pennies, or even raisins when we played. It was also a bit of a math exercise, because one symbol meant you got half the pot, so you had to know how to divide by two.

Where did the original tradition come from? I found an article by Robin Treistman called Poker, Dreidel and Hanukkah.

Ah. This is where the deep part starts. In the time of King Antiochus (you know - the Syrian/Greek dude whose tyranny was overthrown by the Jews), one of the decrees against the Jews was the prohibition of the study of Torah. This went along with other sweet prohibitions such as the one against circumcision, ritual slaughter, performing Temple duties, and more. So how did the Jews get around it? Tradition holds that the children and adults would gather to engage in some kind of game that resembled gambling, such as cards, and at the same time, they would discuss the Torah orally among themselves. Picture this:

'Reb Yaakov - if you were watching my ox, and it fell in a pit, who is liable?'

'I pass - it is quite clear from the Torah that the present overseer of the ox is.'

'Reb Yossi - hit me with 2, OK? But what if the ox got away by itself?'

'I still think that the overseer is liable - he should have had control over the ox all along. The Torah does not differentiate. Hey, check it out guys - a straight flush!'

So a game intertwined with Torah study was the way our great- great-great-great... grandparents would get around Antiochus' decree and similar decrees ordered by later persecutors of the Jews. In memory of this practice, and in celebration of the fact that we can now study without the poker game in the background, we allow and even encourage our children to play dreidel, even though it is like gambling.

Read the full article here

But who'd have thought it could turn into a high stakes competitive sport?

The competitors hunch over the tables, cracking fingers and stretching their wrists. It's the first night of Hanukkah, and only one person can take home the crystal dreidel-shaped trophy. The Major League Dreidel championship is on.

The legends of the game arrive early at a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. With nicknames like Debbie Does Dreidel and Jewbacca, this is no longer a sport for children.

Read the full article here


Jess said...

I like playing for gelt, as you get to eat your winnings!

Nicole said...

yeah, and don't eat the dreidel made out of clay! ick!