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A well known reason we play dreidel on Hanukkah is this: Before the miracle of Hanukkah, when those who controlled the land severely restricted Torah study, Jewish children would gather to study Torah in secret, and brought dreidels with them so that, should they be discovered by the authorities, they could appear to be playing rather than studying.

Nowadays, the letters "נ ג ה ש" on a dreidel are understood to stand for "נס גדול היה שם", "a great miracle happened there", viz the miracle of Hanukkah.

It is possible (and I have seen it suggested) that these letters were on the dreidels used before the miracle of Hanukkah. So what did "נ ג ה ש" stand for at that time?

(Inspired by msh210's PTIJ question. However, this is being asked as a serious question.)

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    Why do you assume that the rules and letters were the same then as now? – Double AA Mar 3 '15 at 23:08
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    You can be dead serious and the question can still be nonsense. There is no reason to suspect there were any specific letters on their toys at the time. – Double AA Mar 3 '15 at 23:10
  • @DoubleAA Let's see what people come up with. – LN6595 Mar 3 '15 at 23:11
  • No thanks. I'll just downvote and move on. If you improve your question at all give me a ping. – Double AA Mar 3 '15 at 23:13
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Our dreidel is of relatively recent vintage and there is no evidence that it existed prior to a few centuries ago. It stood for (before it's being adapted for chanukah)

N = Nisht nothing to put into the pot

G = Gantz Take all

H = Halbe Take half

Sh = Shtel Put coins into the pot

One may perhaps still find deep meaning and significance in the dreidel as Providence (Hashgacha) had it that it became a Chanukah tradition. But that issue is beyond the scope of the current question.

Google "dreidel source" for many references and sources.

  • True, but the Yiddish language came after the Hanukah story. Do you have a Greek or Aramaic equivalent? – LN6595 Mar 4 '15 at 1:26
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    @LN6595: This answer is based on the historical analysis that dreidel is simply the game teetotum adopted by Ashkenazi Jews, and that it doesn't have Jewish roots that go as far back as the Romans. seforim.blogspot.com/2005/12/chanukah-customs-and-sources.html – Chanoch Mar 4 '15 at 1:54
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    I'm not sure if you meant this answer as a joke or you were referencing the point in Chanoch's link, but either way this doesn't answer the question which is assuming there was a dreidel game before the miracle. Therefore, as is, even though i like what you wrote, i cannot upvote. – user6591 Mar 4 '15 at 12:29
  • @Chanoch Thanks... I thought that was clear but I guess not..I updated my answer to clarify. – Yoni Mar 4 '15 at 12:48
  • @user6591 I updated my answer. The question makes a false assumption – Yoni Mar 4 '15 at 13:04
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This is complete conjecture, but so it's the assumption that they really played dradel with letters that stood for something.

Originally, the letters were נשג׳א as per maseches Avoda Zara 36b בית דין של חשמונאי גזרו ישראל הבא על עבודת כוכבים חייב משום נשג׳א. Rashi explains נ=נדה דרבנן. ש=שפחה. ג=גויה. א=אשת איש.

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The Bnai Yissaschar's answer (original here in the note) is that the letters נ ג ה ש should properly be rearranged to spell גשנה (lit. to Goshen). This is a reference to Bereisheis 46:28 when Yehuda is sent ahead to Goshen to prepare for the stay of Yaakov and his children in Mitzrayim. This served as the first precedent and as a perpetual reminder of the need for bnei Yisrael to stay separate from the Umos HaOlam, and not to assimilate into Greek culture.

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    Does the Bnai Yissasschar claim that these letters were present on toys used during the Second Temple era? – Isaac Moses Mar 4 '15 at 15:56
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    @IsaacMoses, no he doesn't. He just explains "the custom of our forefathers on Chanuka". – Yishai Jun 9 '15 at 16:05
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The Bnei Yissaschar (following on from LN6596) says that these letters are an accronym for גוף שכל נפש הכל. גוף כנגד גלות פרס where Haman tried to destroy the Jewish people physically. שכל כנגד גלות יון where the Greeks tried to destroy the Jewish people philosophically. נפש כנגד גלות בבל where the Babylonians tried to destroy the Jewish people spiritually. הכל כנגד גלות אדום where the Romans are trying to destroy the Jewish people physically, philosophically and spiritually.

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The letters 'נ'ג'ה'ש can be taken to represent the four kingdoms which tried to destroy us: נ = Nebuchadnetzar (Babylon); ה = Haman (Persia-Media); ג = Gog (Greece); and ש = Seir (Rome). These were alluded to in the dreams of Daniel, well before the Hanukah miracle.

  • Gog != Greece. Greece in Hebrew is יון, so it should be ניהש – Shmuel Brin Mar 3 '15 at 23:23
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    @ShmuelBrin Also what's the evidence that this scheme was in use even if Gog can be connected to Greece? – Double AA Mar 3 '15 at 23:25
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    And it's not consistent. If you count names of people doing exiling, the fourth should be Galus Titus. If you count Kingdoms, it should be Bavel, Paras/Madai, Yavan and Edom. None of these work – Shmuel Brin Mar 3 '15 at 23:26
  • @DoubleAA Even Leshitoscho it doesn't work. – Shmuel Brin Mar 3 '15 at 23:27
  • For how Gog = Greece, see judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/56093 – LN6595 Mar 6 '15 at 18:43

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