The dreidel has four Hebrew letters – Nun, Gimmel, Hay, Shin (letters of an acronym that translate to: Nes Gadol Haya Sham – “a great miracle happened there”). As a youngster, we used the dreidel to play a gambling game with pennies or chocolate “gelt”. Each letter signified the results of your spin. For example, if the dreidel landed on the Nun, you received nothing from the pot of pennies. If it landed on the Hay, you received half of the pot. Today, when my family lights the candles each night, my sons and I have dreidel competition to see who can keep their dreidel spinning the longest.
In reality, the dreidel doesn’t have any specific religious significance. it was added to the celebration of Chanukah hundreds of years ago during the Jewish Diaspora to make Chanukah more compatible with some of the non-Jewish holidays. Thus, the dreidel game represents an irony of Jewish history. Chanukah is celebrated for the Jewish victory over Greek cultural assimilation. Yet, during Chanukah, we play the dreidel game, which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation!