Dreidels Around the World

The letters on the sides of the dreidel top were originally designed to help players remember the rules.  These letters vary depending on the origin of the top.

The Yiddish dreidel, with which most jews are familiar, uses Hebrew letters which refer to Yiddish words: nun for nichts or nit (nothing), gimel for ganz, gor, or gorin (all), hay for halb (half), shin for stell or shtel ein (put or put in).  To connect the game to Hannukah the letters are also said to stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham, which means "a great miracle happened there."  In Yiddish, the word dreidel comes from the word "dreyden" (to spin).  The dreidel was also called "fargle" and "varfl" which translates to "something thrown". 

Its likely that the Yiddish dreidel has its origins in a secular German spinning top game - which itself was based on a historical European game called totum or teetotum.  The German version of the game had similar rule mnemonics as the Yiddish game - but the letters were of course latin letters instead of Hebrew letters: N for Nichts (nothing), G for Ganz (all), H for Halb (half), S for Stell (put).  The British version used the letters T for Take, H for Half, P for Put, and N for None. A German spinning top game is called a "torrel", "trundl, or "trendlspiel."  In modern England and the United states teetotum is now popularly known as put and take.

In the United States the traditional Yiddish dreidle is generally used - even though the letters don't match up quite as nicely to the rules in English as they do in Yiddish and German.  A popular rule mnemonic is Nun for Nothing, Gimel for Get it all, Hay for half, and Shin for Put it In.  In English, the dreidel is has many alternative spellings (or misspellings) such as dradel, dradle, dradyl, draydl,draydle, draydel, dreidl, dreidle, dreidyl, dreydl, dreydle, dreydel, dreydyl, driedl, driedel, driedle, and driedyl.

In Israel a dreidel is called a sivivon.  This name is derived from the Hebrew word sovev which means "turn" and was invented by Itamar Ben-Avi when he was 5 years old.  Itamar Ben-Avi happened to be the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1952), author of the first modern Hebrew dictionary and a leader in the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language.   Because the miracle of Hannukah actually happened in Israel, the letters on Israeli dreidels are nun, gimel, hay and pay. Pay is used instead of shin so that the Israelis can use the phrase "nes gadol haya po" or "a great miracle happened here".  (In the US the phrase is "nes gadol haya sham" or "a great miracle happened THERE").

Here is a list of more game tops, similar to dreidel, from around the world:

  • Ancient England - Teetotum four sided top: N for nothing, P for put, S for some (an agreed upon amount), T for take all.  Learn more...
  • Ancient England - Teetotum six sided top: Take 1, All Put, Take All, Put 2, Take 2, Put 1.  Learn more...
  • Ancient France - Totum four sided top: P for piller (plunder/take the pool stake), R for rien (nothing), J for jocque (game - the player doubles the pool stake), F for fors (out/take all in the pool).  Learn more...
  • Ancient Rome - four sided top: M for medum (half), N for nihil (nothing), O for omne (all), P for pone (put).  Learn more...
  • Ancient Rome - Teetotum four sided top: A for aufer (take all?),  D for depone (put one in), N for nihil (nothing), T for totum (take all).  Learn more...
  • Modern England - Put and Take four sided top: T for take, H for half, P for put, and N for none. Learn more...
  • Modern England: Put and Take ten sided top: Put 1, Put 2, Put 3, Put 5, All Put, Take 1, Take 2, Take 3, Take All, Spin Again. Learn more...
  • Modern France - six sided top: Prenez 1, Mettez Chacun, Prenez tout, Mettez 2, Prenez 2, Mettez 2. Learn more...
  • Modern Germany - eight sided top: Gewinnt 1 (win 1), Gewinnt 3 (win 3), Gewinnt 10 (win 10), Verliert 1 (lose 1), Verliert 2 (lose 2), Verliert 3 (lose 3), Verliert 5 (lose 5), Alle Verl 1 (everybody loses 1). Learn more...
  • Modern Germany - six sided top: Nimm 1 (take 1), Nimm 2 (take 2), Nimm ROMA (take everything), Setze 1 (set/put 1), Setze 2 (set/put 2), Jeder Setze (everybody sets/puts). Learn more...
  • Modern Germany/Austria - Nimm-Gib six sided top: Nimm 2 (take 2), Gib 1 (give 1), Alle Geben, Jeder Gibt, Nimm 1 (take 1), Gib 2 (give 2). Learn more...
  • Modern Italy/Sardinia - Baddarincu four sided top: Mesu (half), Totu (everything), Poni (put), Nudda (nothing). Learn more...
  • Modern Malta - four sided top: Paga (pay), Mezzo (half), Niente (nothing) and Tutto (everything). Learn more...
  • Modern Mexico - Toma Todo six sided top: Toma Todo (take all), Todos Ponen, Toma 1, Toma 2 (take two), Pon 1 (put 1), Pon 2.  Learn more...


Here are a few great references on this subject:


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