Hanukkah: How to Get the Gelt!

Hanukkah is just days away and that means it’s time to play the Dreidel game. If you don’t know what that is, read on. If you do know, but have forgotten how we’ve got a sweet cheat sheet to get you back in the game! But first, a little background…

The 8-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is often called the Festival of Lights because the main activity is the nightly ritual lighting of a Menorah— the Hebrew word for candelabra. Each afternoon during Hanukkah, the whole family comes together and at sundown, the Menorah is lit and the prayers are said. Family and friends sing holiday songs and sometimes exchange gifts. Delicious food is served, including the traditional jelly donuts and latkes— potato pancakes served with applesauce, sour cream and sometimes dill pickles.

And then what? Give in to the food-stupid and kick back on the couch? Help Bubbe with the dishes? Well, you should… but heck no! It’s Hanukkah and that means it’s time to play the Dreidel game!

Dreidel is the Yiddish word for a 4-sided spinning top. The spinning top gambling game itself is quite ancient and is found in many places around the world.  It was popular across Europe from at least Romans times and was originally called teetotum. Originally, the four sides were marked A for the Latin word Aufer, meaning ‘take’; D for Depone, which means ‘put down’; N for Nihil, which means ‘nothing’ and T for Totum, which means ‘all’.

In English teetotum, the letters were N for None, T for Take, H for Half and P for Put. The Germans called the game Trendel. They used the letters N for Nichts (nothing), G for Ganz (all), H for Halb (half), S for Stell (put).

As the game spread across the world, different cultural groups changed the letters to help them remember the rules, in their own language. But the basic rules remain the same: take all, take half, take nothing, pay up.

As in other cultures and countries, each of the four sides of the traditional Jewish Dreidel is inscribed with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In America, these letters are Nun, Gimel, He and Shin.

The letters are supposed to help you remember the rules, to serve as a mnemonic.  But what if your Hebrew’s rusty — or nonexistent? How will you remember what’s what? No worries. We’ve got you covered.

The Dreidel Game Cheat Sheet

נ (Nun) – None. Nada. You get nuthin’.

ג (Gimel) – Gimme all!

ה (He) – Hooray, you get half!

ש (Shin) – Shucks, you must pay.

American Dreidels often have English letters, which makes it easier for players unfamiliar with the Hebrew alphabet. But you can still include non-Hebrew speakers even if your Dreidel has Hebrew letters. Sure, you could print the cheat sheet and keep it at hand as you play, but it’s way more fun to have the players (and spectators) who do know the Hebrew letters shout them out as the Dreidel spins to a halt and settles on a letter. It’s even more fun to shout out the letters with the cheat sheet mnemonic phrases. There’s nothing like hollering, “Gimel! Gimme all!” to really increase the energy ante!

Alright. Ready? It’s time to go for the gelt. But wait, what is that exactly? Gelt. If your first thought was ‘gold’, you were very close. Gelt is the Yiddish word for money.

Just in case you, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, are “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” – Dreidel isn’t played for real money. While some families do play with small coins like pennies, most people use golden chocolate coins.

That said, here’s a great idea for a grown-up game of Dreidel that puts a little different spin on the game: Play with real money! But in keeping with the spirit of the season, before you start spinning, agree to donate your winnings to a deserving charity or cause.

So let’s play Dreidel, shall we? First, each player is given some gelt, maybe 10 or 20 coins. At the start of each round, the players “ante up” by putting a coin into the kitty. Who spins first? Youngest to oldest? Shortest to tallest? Whatever’s easiest.

If the letter comes up N or Nun, the player simply passes. If the letter comes up S or Shin, the player pays a coin into the pot and passes to the next player. If the letter comes up H or He, the player scoops up half the loot in the kitty and then passes to the next player. If the letter comes up G or Gimel, it’s winner take all …and a new round of play begins. Ante-up!

This year’s Hanukkah festivities begin on December 24, 2016, and end on January 1, 2017. It’s a great time to spend time with family and friends, light the menorah, eat too much and have a blast playing Dreidel. Happy Hanukkah!

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