Dreidels versus Cards

Both dreidels and cards have become intimately connected with  Chanukah over the centuries.   Yet   the   attitude towards each is vastly different.

While  dreidel  playing  is  endowed with an aura of relevance  and sanctity, card playing  was always  frowned  upon and barely tolerated. What is the root of this distinction  between  the dreidel and cards, both of which  involve  gambling when all is said and done? What secret makes dreidel spinning superior to a friendly game of cards?


Let   us   begin   with   the   harmless dreidel. The dreidel (a teetotum or spinning  top  in  English)   is  the  first cousin of  the  insidious  dice,  a simple device  which  helps  fulfill  the  second of mankind’s  two chief goals:  the first, to invent  the  technology  to free  up as much leisure  time  as possible,  and the second, to find ways  to kill the leisure time created by the first goal.

The   dice   is  doubly   evil,   initially as a  prime  medium  of  gambling,  and secondly,  as  a  prime  way  of  wasting time. As  the  Gemara  (Sanhedrin 24b) explains, those who gamble with dice are disqualified from giving testimony either because their winnings  are regarded  as theft, or because  they are not involved in any constructive  employment.

The  commentaries  offer  a  variety of explanations why lack of gainful employment is  a disqualification from giving testimony.  The Meiri writes that gamblers become so used to lying in the course of their betting  games  that they see nothing  wrong  with lying  in court. In addition,  since  their  earnings  come without  effort,  it  does  not  faze  them in the least when people lose money through their  perjury.  To them,  money is easy come, easy go.

Regarding the Meiri’s first explanation, it is instructive to note that, in Imperial Rome, lawmakers  legislated that once a person allowed gambling  to take place in his home, he could not bring any participating gambler  to court even if he was cheated or assaulted. Evidently, dishonesty was  part  and  parcel  of  the Roman gambling experience.

The  Rivash  (432) writes that gambling is also “ugly, disgusting, and reprehensible, and has killed many souls and many are its victims.”

In  a  similar  vein,  the  Pele  Yo’etz (Erech sechok) describes  how gamblers waste  their  days  and  nights  and  lose all their  money.  Even  when  they  hit a lucky streak,  every  good  thing  comes to an end, and eventually,  they resort to robbery and theft in order to recoup their losses.  Their  families   go  hungry  and they become so involved in their games that they neglect prayer and mitzvos.

This  is  because,  “when  the  yetzer hara overpowers  them  and they are in the midst  of play, it is harder  for them to  leave   it  than  to  tear  a  fingernail from their flesh. They do not even pity their lives  and  will  not  leave  a  game even  to  eat  and  sleep  at  appropriate times. Someone  habituated  to this evil addiction  of  playing  will  never  leave it even in his old age except  through  a great exertion of strength.”

According to the Roman historian, Tacitus, the  situation  was  the  same  in barbarian Germany, two thousand years ago:

“They   play  dice  soberly,   as  if  it were a serious  business,  and with such hardihood in  winning  and  losing  that, when they have nothing more left, they stake  their  freedom   on  the  last  cast of the die. The loser resigns himself voluntarily to servitude, and even if he is younger and stronger than his adversary, he allows himself to be bound and sold. They themselves call this, ‘keeping their word.’”

The Shevet Mussar roundly condemned all games even when not played for profit, pointing  out that such pastimes are a sheer waste of time.

Indeed, this is precisely why dice games  are   so  popular,   especially   in olden times when there were few books and no electronic gadgetry to wile away people’s   empty    hours.    Dice   games sprang up in every culture.

The ancient historian, Sophocles, claims that Palamedes  taught  the game to soldiers during Greece’s siege of Troy, three thousand years ago. Herodotus attributes  its  invention  to  the  Lydians who  gambled  in  order  to  divert  their minds during a terrible famine while ancient Egyptian murals depict King Rameses III playing dice with members of his  family,  and  5,000-year-old  dice have been excavated  in Iran.

Worldwide, Aztec  and Maya,  South Sea  Islanders,   Eskimos   and  Africans utilized the materials at hand to construct their dice,  whether  fruit  pits,  pebbles, animal bones,  horns,  nutshells,  beaver teeth or seashells.  Everywhere, people became addicted to its dangerous  lure.

An   old   report    of   Indian    tribes dwelling by the Missouri River describes how “most  of  the  pleasure  time,  both by day and night, of these nations is devoted  to  gambling.   Every  day  and night, the gambling  song and the rattle of the bowl dice are heard. Women are as much addicted to the practice as men though, not  being  in  possession  of  so much property,  their  losses  are  not  so distressing.”

Now, since the dreidel is a variation of  the  thousands   of  dice  games  that have existed  since  antiquity,  why  is it so accepted  on Chanukah  that even the Chasam  Sofer  reportedly   played  with a silver dreidel one night of Chanukah each year (Safra Raba d’Yisroel)?

A number  of gedolim  even  praised the game for a number of reasons.

The  Bnei  Yissaschar  (2:25)  writes: “The   minhag   of   our   forefathers    is Torah, regarding  the custom that during Chanukah boys play with wooden cubes with  the  letters  gimmel,  shin,  nun,  hei on  their  four  sides.  The  significance is that  these  four  letters  hint  at man’s four   powers,    the   physical    (gufani), the spiritual (nafshi), the intellectual (sichli),   and   an   upper    power    that includes  everything   (hakol).  Now  the four kingdoms, Rome, Babylon, Greece, and Madai,  oppose  these  four  powers and will be destroyed  by the Moshiach, which has  the same  gematria  as these four letters…”

In other words,  Babylon  cut off our nefesh by  destroying  the  first Temple, Persia wanted  to destroy  our bodies  in the days  of Haman,  Greece  wanted  to subdue our intellect, and Rome embodies the evil of them all. We spin the dreidel, the Bnei Yissaschar continues,  in order to symbolize  that these four nations  all revolve around the central axis, Klal Yisroel, which unifies all these powers.

Seforim also bring in the name of the Bnei Yissaschar  another  insight  about the dreidel. On Purim we spin a gragger from the bottom which signifies the teshuva we  did,  which  caused  the  top to react – Hashem saved us. A dreidel is spun from the top to signify the miracle Hashem did for us first, which  caused the ‘bottom’  to react – Klal Yisrael did teshuva afterwards.

The Minhagei Yeshurun offers a simpler  explanation   for   playing   this game. It is to remind us how the Greeks forbade the Jews from studying  Torah. Children   would   take   spinning    tops along  with  them  when  they  went  to learn, so that if a Greek or traitor passed by they could pretend they were playing together.

The  four  letters  on the dreidel also represent the words  “Nes gadol  hayah sham,”   “A   great   miracle    happened there,” perhaps  hinting  that even when events seem  to  spin  round  in  helpless confusion, in reality they are guided by Hashem’s miraculous  hand.


Unlike  the  dreidel, which  the  Bnei Yissaschar categorizes  as a minhag Yisroel, the custom  of playing  cards on Chanukah was roundly condemned  and only tolerated on sufferance.

As the Kedushas  Levi writes  in his Chanukah drashos,  “Every  Jew should assiduously  place  his  mind  in  Torah on  Chanukah   as  the   light   of  Torah begins  to  radiate   during   these   days. One  should   not  waste  his  time  with games at all. Especially,  as I have seen that nowadays,  Jews have committed  a pirtzah (breach)  by playing  with cards, regarding it as a light matter. However, they should know that each card bears a great klipah (impure force) that is better not mentioned…”

After  citing  Rav  Pinchas  of Koretz who said that the 36 cards in the playing pack correspond  to the  36 tractates  of Shas whose  light  they  extinguish,   the Bnei Yissaschar (II:12)  writes  that  the Greeks invented  this klipah  in order to nullify the  Torah. This  chiddush  is  in contrast to historians who claim that playing cards originated  inChina.

Why was card playing more prevalent during Chanukah?  The Orchos Chayim (Chapter 136) cites an explanation of the Mahari Bruna, that the habit of playing cards   became    so   prevalent    among common  people  that  the  leaders  could not uproot it completely. Therefore  they decreed that it should only be played on days when people do not say Tachanun. The  Chavos  Yair  writes  that  in  other places    leaders    enacted    that   people should only play cards on Chanukah.

Similarly,  the Noheig  Katzon  Yosef (188)  writes,  “In  all  congregations, it was  decreed  to not play  any game  the whole year excepting for Chanukah and Purim when this was permitted  as a sop to the evil  inclination.  As the Gemara (Kiddushin 21b) says, ‘Better  to eat an animal close to death that was shechted, [than to]  eat  an  animal  close  to death that died naturally.’”

Elsewhere (Responsa     126), the Chavos Yair  describes  how  his  father attempted to root out card playing altogether: “I remember that when I was a child, the people in charge of making enactments headed by my father… decided  to  change  the  old  custom  of not playing  the  whole  year  except  for Chanukah. My  pious  father  thought  it a bad thing that the days of the miracle that  are  a  special  time  of  thanks  and praise, should  be  set  aside  to  playing and levity. He wanted to forbid them and enact [instead of the week of Chanukah] eight  days  when  people  do  not  work [the eight days ending  January  1 when business  with  non-Jews  was  avoided] and stay home. He did not succeed because people did not agree to alter the minhag.

All  this  leaves  us  with  an  enigma. Why was the dreidel accepted as a time- honored minhag while card games were barely tolerated?

It seems that card games had two strikes against  them. First, people were addicted  to  the  game   and  it  wasted a tremendous  amount of time, and secondly, it is connected  to a dangerous klipah. The dreidel, on the other  hand, never   developed    into   more   than   a childish  game  and  never  became  like the insidious dicing marathons  indulged in by other nations.

Rav Avrohom Bornstein of Sochatchov  once  said  in  a  humorous vein, that  the  rationale  behind  playing cards on Chanukah is the custom of lighting inside,  which  is only effective if the household is awake at the time the head of the household  lights, and not if everyone is asleep. Therefore, people developed the minhag of playing games on Chanukah night in order to keep their children awake for the mitzvah.

(Credit: Levi, Yosef. Minhag  Yisrael Torah. Israel, 5760.)

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