What's the point of playing dreidel (or dreydl )? Depends on your perspective

To the editor: UC Riverside philosophy professor Eric Schwitzgebel not only fails to cite the “spiritual” meaning of the letters on the dreydl (note the correct Yiddish transliteration), he also does not point out that such meaning is a relatively new rationale for the gambling values on the medieval spinning top game “trendl.” (“Dreidel: A seemingly dumb game that contains the moral world in miniature,” Opinion, Dec. 12)

The author correctly notes that the Hebrew and Yiddish letters nun, giml, hey and shin stand for, respectively, “nothing,” “take all,” “take half” and “add to the pot.” Others will insist that the letters stand for “nes godol hoyo shom” — “a great miracle happened there” — leaving one perplexed about why such a profound phrase is used for gambling.

It also should be noted that kids gambling with a spinning top developed as a boredom-chaser while the Hanuka (simplest spelling) candles burned and useful activity in their light was forbidden. Adults played cards during the same brief period for the same reason.

Finally, gold-foil covered chocolate coins are a very recent development in commercialized Jewish culture — nuts were previously used as game tokens — and the correct plural of dreydl is dreydlekh.

Hershl Hartman, Los Angeles

The writer is education director for the secular Jewish Sholem Community, L.A., and author of “The Hanuka Festival: A Guide For the Rest of Us.”


To the editor: I enjoyed Schwitzgebel’s piece about the life lessons learned by playing the game of dreidel.

Assuming the dreidel is properly balanced, a player has a 50% chance of winning on each spin (if it lands with gimmel or hey on top). There is only a 25% chance of losing (if it lands with shin on top) and a 25% chance of a neutral outcome (if it lands with nun on top).

I doubt any other game of chance offers such good odds. If the game provides life lessons, it also provides a very optimistic view of life.

Barbara Motz, Valley Village

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