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soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Observance, Marriage, Women in Judaism (4/12)
Section - Question 5.6: What are the origins of the Chanukah Dreidel?

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                                  Answer:
   
   Both dreidel and grogger are traditional European toys, although the
   names they go by in non-Jewish cultures are quite different from the
   ones we use.
   
   The English (and Latin) name for the dreidel is teetotum -- and you
   can look up its history in the Oxford English Dictionary. It turns out
   to be an ancient gambling toy, known in ancient Greece, and with
   national variations on the letters on the faces of the toy. In all
   national variants, the letters are a mnemonic for the rules of the
   game. For example, the traditional English letters are:
   T - Take all
   H - Take half
   N - Nothing
   P - Put

   Although the fact that the Dreidel goes back to Greek times makes it
   possible that it was known in the Hashemonean kingdom, the fact that
   the Hebrew letters on the sides make a mnemonic that fits the pattern
   described above when used as initial letters of Yiddish words suggests
   that the dreidel entered Jewish culture through the Yiddish speaking
   Ashkenazi and is not of ancient origin.
   
   The OED entry for teetotum says that that the toy fell out of use
   because cards were far better gambling games, and that by the 1890's,
   it had been reduced to a children's toy in the English speaking world.
   
   In the Jewish world, according to Schauss's guide to Jewish Holy Days,
   the playing card fad of the middle ages led the rabbis issuing a
   series of edicts condemning excessive gambling. They didn't ban the
   dreidel, though, perhaps because the "A great miracle happened there"
   interpretation of the letters allowed the dreidel to escape their
   wrath.
   
   As to the grogger, the rest of the English speaking world calls them
   ratchets. You can buy orchestral ratchets from the precussion section
   of good music supply catalogs, and in much of the world, the ratchet
   is an important part of the equipment you take to things like soccer
   matches and new-years parties.

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