The dreidel, or sevivon in modern Hebrew, is much more than meets the eye. It runs deep, very deep, more than our minds can sometimes easily comprehend, as it unites the natural and the supernatural in each spin.
By Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun
A very popular Jewish custom is to play dreidel on Chanukah. What is the deeper significance of this act?
The dreidel has four faces, on each of which is inscribed a letter from the Hebrew alphabet.
The four letters are nun (נ), gimel (ג), hei (ה), and shin (ש), which comprise the initials of the phrase, “A great miracle occurred there”.
The numerical value of these four letters combined is 358 which is equivalent to the numerical value of the word Mashiach!
As we shall see, one of the central motifs found in the dreidel’s hidden meanings is that of Mashiach and redemption—changing the world and making it a worthy dwelling place for the Almighty.
In Israel, the dreidel contains the letter פ for “here” instead of the letter ש for “there” since the miracle happened in Israel. The phrase, whose initials are on the dreidel, now reads, “A great miracle occurred here.” The letters on the dreidel representing this are nun, gimel, hei, and pei, and their numerical sum adds up to 138. But still one cannot escape the dreidel’s inner meaning which revolves around Mashiach and redemption, because 138 is the value of Menachem, one of the names of Mashiach according to the sages; it is also the value of the word Tzemach, the name of the Mashiach appearing in the Bible, “behold I send you my servant Tzemach…”
The dreidel is shaped like a top, with a pointed bottom edge on which it can be spun. Spinning the dreidel causes its square contours to fade-out, making it seem like a round, circular top.
Conceptually, the dreidel’s square faces and features represent the mathematical and syllogistic logic of the ancient Greeks, over whom the Maccabee’s were victorious, both materially and spiritually.
The Maccabee’s believed that a view of nature and life that is based on human rationalism, research and reason alone is lacking. The round contours revealed by the dreidel when it spins represent the realm of the Divine, which manifests as miracles —events that cannot be understood, comprehended, perceived or even contemplated by the limited thinking human mind.
By meditating on the act of spinning the dreidel, we connect and identify with the Divine and show our willingness to see beyond the square and logical face of nature and believe and tap into the infinite, circular realm of G-d’s infinite space. In effect, meditating on the dreidel’s spin has the power to open our eyes to miracles.
How do these two ideas—that of Mashiach, redemption; and that of distinguishing and recognizing the extraordinary and the miraculous within the natural order—both concepts represented in the dreidel, relate to each other?
The answer is that Mashiach’s task is to make humankind aware of the fact that everything emanates from G-d. That which cannot be rationalized and that which can be rationalized both are equally G-d created, governed and mandated. Both answer and are subservient to His will and power. Both ultimately serve to inspire man of His greatness and splendor, dominion and grace. The natural order is simply the more constant will of G-d, not the workings of nature.
Mashiach will accomplish this by ushering and inspiring a unity between G-d (spiritual, Divine, incomprehensible reality) and His creation (physical, comprehensible reality).
The only way we can relate and refer to G-d, is through His world because we can only relate to G-d through human experiences, and those are the experiences we express in the finite world.
Mashiach will demonstrate that both are miraculous and divine. The natural world is just the more frequent will of the divine, which by experiencing it every day we falsely attribute its dynamic to what we erroneously call nature.
This is the significance of the duality of “a great miracle happened there” and “a great miracle happened here” two miracles, the divine, spiritual realm, there, and the seemingly mundane, tangible world we live in here. Both are miraculous and extraordinary and divine and blissful and blessed and G-dly.
Our job is to spin the dreidel and behold, observe and absorb that oneness by witnessing how the rigid angles of the spinning top all blend together in perfect rhythm into a circle of harmony and unity.