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Several articles such as this one and this wikipedia article claim that the custom of the dreidel have nothing to do with Chanukah. Myjewishlearning has the following to say about the custom:

In England and Ireland there is a game called totum or teetotum that is especially popular at Christmastime. In English, this game is first mentioned as “totum” ca. 1500-1520. The name comes from the Latin “totum,” which means “all.” By 1720, the game was called T- totum or teetotum, and by 1801 the four letters already represented four words in English: T = Take all; H = Half; P = Put down; and N = Nothing.

Our Eastern European game of dreidel (including the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin) is directly based on the German equivalent of the totum game: N = Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in.... Thus the dreidel game represents an irony of Jewish history. In order to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidel game, which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation! Of course, there is a world of difference between imitating non-Jewish games and worshiping idols, but the irony remains nonetheless.

Does anyone know of an early source (Rishonim or earlier) for the phrase "Nes Gadol Haya Sham?" Is it all really a "Sham" (pun intended) or is there any chance it was actually used by the Jews since the times of Chanukah? Did it exist off the dreidel? Do we refer to Chanukah as a Nes Gadol anywhere in early sources?

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According to this article, the earliest mention of the significance of dreidel is in the late 18th century, and the first mention of it having been done in the time of Chanukah is from 1890.

So, there is no evidence that it was done since then, and it is not mentioned by rishonim.

Regarding nes gadol haya sham, this source from 1911 implies it, as does this source from 1913. I couldn't find earlier sources on HebrewBooks or the Bar Ilan responsa project.

It is unsurprising that somewhere in all of Jewish literature, one would find the great miracles of Chanukah referred to as a great miracle. For example, in the 13th century R. Yehoshua ibn Shuib writes (Derashot Parashat Mikets):

וכן עשה השם בזמן חשמונאים שעשה השם נס גדול ונסתר שמסר גבורים ביד חלשים ורבים ביד מעטים בימי מתתיה בן יוחנן כהן גדול חשמונאי

However, as noted, there is no reason whatsoever to think that the practice of dreidel, dates back to the time of Chanukkah. That would require that it remain unmentioned for over 1800 years, during which time we find it only as a non-Jewish toy, with no mention of any Jewish significance. There is certainly no reason to assume that the lettering originated in Hebrew, given that the oldest sources for it are not in Hebrew. There is further no reason that when we do find Hebrew paralleling the existing German, that it is somehow the original. If it were the case, this must have been a secret for literally thousands of years from the time of Chanukkah until the "nes gadol haya" sham is mentioned. A secret so well guarded, that not a word spilled, and no evidence was found.

It's kind of like suggesting that 'Yahoo' really stands for "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle", and that early records of the reason for the name, are a cover up, or mistake. The only difference, is that the previous example doesn't require imaging the existence of a secret two thousand year old train of knowledge, so secret that no one ever whispered of it.

In short no evidence whatsoever at all, and all evidence to the contrary.

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dinonline has interesting things to say on the topic

Nobody can say with certainty when the custom of playing dreidel on Chanukah first began. The idea is not found in sources from Talmudic times or even in the era of Geonim and Rishonim. Its first mention is by Ashkenazi authorities of the Eighteenth Century (though the custom might be older).

[...]

According to one source, the custom of playing dreidel relates to the time of the Maccabees. It is said that in an effort to circumvent the Greek decree against studying Torah, children studying with their teacher would have a dreidel handy to start playing in case the Greeks came upon them while they were studying Torah. They would say that they were not studying but just playing dreidel. In commemoration of this element of the Chanukah miracle, the dreidel game was adopted as a custom (Rabbi A. Hirschovitz, Minhagei Yeshurun (1890), no. 19, sec. 4).

[...]

Playing the dreidel is clearly not obligatory. Nonetheless [...] a number of prominent authorities give it the respect of a full Minhag Yisrael.

Regarding Nes Gadol Haya Sham, Wikipedia brings some theories building on the totum you bring in your question

Adapted to the Hebrew alphabet when Jews adopted the game, these letters were replaced by shin (=shtel arayn (put in); nun (= nit (not, i.e., nothing); gimel, representing gants (whole/everything); and he (=halb (half)). The letters served as a means to recalling the rules of the game.

This theory states that when the game spread to Jewish communities unfamiliar with Yiddish, the denotations of the Hebrew letters were not understood. As a result, there arose Jewish traditions to explain their assumed meaning. However, in Judaism there are often multiple explanations developed for words. Some claimed the 4 letters cyphered Babylon, Persia, Greece and the Roman Empire, the four ancient empires that tried to destroy Israel; a gematriya reading yielded the number 358, identical to the value of the 4 letters used for Moshiach (Messiah). A third popular conjecture had it that the letters abbreviated the words nes gadol haya sham (a great miracle happened there), an idea that became attached to dreidels when the game entered into Hanukkah festivities.

Despite this different explanations have been offered on the significance of the dreidel on Chanuka, e.g.,

The Bnei Yissachar writes that the reason a dreidel is spun from the top, whereas the Purim gragger turned from the bottom, is related to how each of the miracles were effected. On Chanukah the miracle came from above, directly from Hashem. However, on Purim the miracles were brought about by the actions of Esther, Mordechai and the Jewish people from below.

  • In modren Israel the dreidel is often marked with the letters נ ג ה פ, meaning "נס גדול היה פה" = "Nes Gadol Haya Po" = "a great miracle happened here". According to Hebrew wikipedia, this was done in the early 20th century, to adjust to actual being in Israel. – Jonathan Dec 4 '17 at 12:29
  • Hebrew Wikipedia expands a bit more: המשחק בסביבון, שנפוץ גם באירופה (ונקרא ביידיש "דריידל"), אומץ שם על ידי היהודים. והיות שימי החנוכה היו "יומי דפגרא" שלא התקיימו בהם לימודים, נהגו לבלות את לילות החג במשחקי הימור כמשחקי קלפים וסביבונים. ולכן נכרך המשחק עם מסורת חג החנוכה וניסיו. The gist of it is that since it’s a joyous holiday and kids are off of school, they added a fun game, which eventually became a part of the holiday’s identity. This claim, however, is left unsourced. – DonielF Dec 7 '17 at 15:31
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The ספר התודעה explains that it was a game given to the kids to occupy themselves after Chanuka Candle lighting, the game was then infused with a meaning that would strengthen the children's emunah so the time was wasted. Hence the connection of the letters to Hashem doing a great miracle there.

  • That's great! Do you have the Maareh Makom so I can see it inside? – Eliyahu Dec 3 '18 at 4:38
  • Welcome to MiYodeya Burntolearn (love the user ID!) and thanks for this first answer. Since MY is different from other sites you might be used to, see here for a guide which might help understand the site. Great to have you learn with us! – mbloch Dec 3 '18 at 8:57
  • This is not an early source, nor is it earlier than the ones in the other answers, not does it address the acronym. – robev Dec 3 '18 at 19:41
  • It is not early but it does address the acronym. as being created to give the game a purpose (to increase the emunah of the children playing) . Its in sefer hatodah in the chapter of kisleiv in a praragraph called minhagim - not sure how else to give the maareh makom – Burntolearn Dec 4 '18 at 13:56

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