Happy Hanukkah everyone! Today is the third day of the Jewish festival of lights, which takes place over a total of eight days. This year, Hanukkah and Christmas overlap, making it a great year to discuss the ways that we can celebrate them together.
Last year, I discussed how we can worship Jesus, the light of the world, as we light the Hanukkah menorah (click here to read about that). This year, I want to focus on another element of the Hanukkah tradition and how we can incorporate Jesus’ birth into it.
Most people have seen a dreidel, but few know why they are significant, or what they have to do with a festival of lights. Most people think they are simply a glorified gambling game, and it’s true that to some, that’s all they are. But, the dridel points to the core meaning of the holiday, and it can also be easily integrated with some of our favorite Christmas traditions.
Tradition tells us that Jews in the Diaspora made dreidels while in captivity. It was a way to study God’s word without attracting too much notice. These four sided tops simply looked like toys, not tools of reflection and meditation.
Each side contains one Hebrew letter: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hey), and ש (Shin). These letters are an acronym for the words נס גדול היה שם, Nes Gadol Haya Sham: “A great miracle happened there.” It refers to the miracle of Hanukkah, where God made the temple oil last eight days for the rededication, when there was only a one day supply.
In the Letinsky home, we play the dreidel game at Hanukkah. We spin the top and play for M&Ms, gelt (chocolate coins), or pennies. Each letter has different rules. If you land on Nun, you lose your turn and get “none.” Gimel gives you the entire pot (“gimme”). Lading on Hey gets you half the pot. Shin wipes you out, and you go broke (which seems appropriate, since it sound like the word “sin”).
So how in the world does this little game have anything to do with baby Jesus? It’s all in the letters. Especially this year, when the holidays overlap, we can truly say “a miracle happened there” and apply it to both the Hanukkah oil and the miracle of our Savior’s birth. I made it even more obvious for my nativity and placed a banner under it with all the dreidel letters facing forward, proclaiming that a miracle happened there, 2000 years ago.
Okay, one more little dreidel factoid because I love this kind of stuff. Some orthodox sects of Judaism study the Bible by interpreting the numerical value of each of the Hebrew letters. They often look for prophetic significance in them. This form of study is called Gematria, and if you’ve ever read Chaim Potok’s classic, The Chosen, you’ll see several mentions of it. Don’t ask me to explain how this works, but I’ve heard rumors that the numerical value of each of the Hebrew letters on the dreidel adds up to the word “messiah,” which is another great reason why the dreidel works well as a reminder of our Messiah, Jesus.
So, spin a dreidel. Think about Jesus, the promised Messiah, who was prophesied about long before his time on earth, and the great miracle that happened there, in Bethlehem, when he was born.
Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!