The word dreidel is Yiddish, and comes from the German verb dreihen, meaning “to spin.” Dreidel literally means “little spinner.” The first dreidel players were Yiddish-speaking Jews in medieval Europe. In fact, playing with tops has been a popular pastime across western Europe since at least the 16th century.
Many believe that the four letters on the dreidel — nun, gimel, hay and shin — were taken from the Hebrew expression “nes gadol hayah sham,” meaning “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the miraculous events of the Chanukah story in ancient Israel. Really, this meaning was added later on — the letters originally represented the Yiddish instructions for what to do when you land on each one (Yiddish and Hebrew use the same alphabet): Gimel for gantz, “whole”: take the whole pot; hay for halb, “half”: take half the pot; nun for nisht, “nothing”: don’t take out or put in; and shin for shtehl einl, “put in”: put some of your coins into the pot.
As the dreidel became a symbol associated with Chanukah, many legends began to stem from it, like this one: When Antiochus decreed that Jewish law could no longer be studied in public, righteous Jews defied him and continued to teach Torah to their children. When they saw the king’s henchman coming, groups of students would quickly hide their books and bring out their dreidels, pretending that they had merely gathered for a bit of fun and gambling.
Dreidel-spinning has even become a competitive sport: The group Major League Dreidel hosts tournaments every year in New York City and crowns a champion for the longest-lasting continuous spin. — jns.org