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.
THE EVIL OF CARDS
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.)