Feed on

The Dreidel Spinner

Rabbi Shneur Zalman coined the phrase, dosage “living with the times” which means to live life in the light of the weekly Torah portion; and to see it as an indicator for all that happens to us throughout the week—both on a personal and national level.

Indeed, viagra approved the date when Rabbi Shneur Zalman was released from prison usually falls during the week of the Torah portion of Vayeshev, which relates how Joseph was imprisoned in the Egyptian jail. Joseph is the most prominent righteous Biblical figure who was sent to jail. Since Joseph and until today, there is a long list of exemplary Jewish figures who have undergone similar experiences, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman is the most prominent of them all.

As explained in Part 1 of this article, Rabbi Shneur Zalman did not satisfy himself with quietly returning home after he left the prison. Just like the righteous Joseph who removed his prisoners’ clothing and instantly donned the royal robes as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, Rabbi Shneur Zalman turned the entire episode of his imprisonment into a springboard to increase his efforts to spread the wellsprings of Chassidut.

It is not difficult to identify another similarity between the two figures. Apart from the title “Righteous” that Joseph deserved and received, Joseph was also a remarkably wise man whose Divine wisdom astonished even non-Jews. So too, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a righteous and wise figure who impressed even the Russian interrogators with his wisdom.

Fleeing Outside

Let’s now continue to “live with the times,” and join up with the righteous Joseph as his righteousness came to the fore. The climax of the description of Joseph’s righteousness comes after Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce him, in the verse, “And he left his garment in her hands and he fled and he exited outside.” [1] Running away and leaving the house was the hardest part of withstanding the test, and once he was outside, the worst was already behind him.

We might say that Joseph succeeded in fleeing outside of this world. Potiphar’s wife was the crème de la crème of Egyptian culture, and high society at its best. For Joseph, she represented all the irresistible temptations that the world has to offer. “The eye perceives and the heart desires”? usually the eyes are captured by all the delicacies of the world and the heart is gradually tempted towards them. But, Joseph succeeded in being faithful to his father’s home and ignored the demands of the physical world by simply leaving it for another world.

How did Joseph do this? To be sure, he must have had a great deal of will-power. But, behind the scenes lies a profound wisdom, a complete world view, which both knows how to laugh at the world and simultaneously flee from it. It is Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch [2] who reveals this secret to us, quoting the sages’ words (also mentioned by Rashi), stating that Joseph almost failed the test, had it not been for the appearance of his father’s image before him at the very last minute. [3] Rabbi Dov Ber explains that a truly righteous individual, a tzadik, knows that every phenomenon in the world is rooted in holiness. Even those absolutely evil phenomena that we are commanded to flee from like we flee from fire, have in them a “spark” of holiness that has fallen from upon high and has descended to be cloaked in this evil garb. Joseph saw before him a temptress, who attempted to wile him away from sanctity by the power of her beauty. But, Joseph knew that this was impure beauty with evil intentions, and he reminded himself that this false beauty covered a fallen spark of sanctity, and was nothing more than a false replica of true and holy beauty. He knew that true beauty and harmony of the correct blend of pure and holy attributes are those represented by his father Jacob.

This is how Rabbi Dov Ber interprets the midrash that Jacob’s image appeared to Joseph and saved him from being lured into Potiphar’s wife’s net. Joseph succeeded in “elevating the attribute to its source,” and instead of looking at the woman’s external beauty, he clung to the inner dimension of beauty that lies beyond the world we live in—a material world that threatens to dazzle us with superficial beauty. In other words, by disassembling the situation into its primary components, Joseph succeeded in annulling these temptations, and redirected them to the path of holiness.

Out of this World

The word “outside” (????????) is familiar to us from another Biblical context. If we go back, we find that the original appearance of this word is with reference to Abraham, as the verse states: “And God took him outside and said: Please gaze at the sky and count the stars, can you count them? And He said to him: This is how your offspring will be.” [4]

Where did God take Abraham “outside” to? Rashi states:

Literally this means that He took him out of his tent to see the stars. But, the homiletic explanation [i.e., the Midrash] is that He said to him, “Go out of your astrology where you saw in the stars that you will never have a child. Abram does not have a child, but Abraham will have a child… Another explanation is that He took him out of this world and elevated him above the stars, and this is the meaning of the verb “to gaze” (????????)?[to look] down from above.

The first homiletic interpretation is that, in his great wisdom, Abraham reached the clear conclusion that he and Sarah would never have children. But, God took him outside of this world view. In modern vernacular, the implication of the second interpretation, “out of this world” is “out of the cosmos,” which resembles infinity; but in truth is finite and also follows the limitations of the laws of nature. Abraham’s initial faith in God could not completely ignore those limitations, because, after all, he realized that God created a finite, limited system with its own set of laws. However, God showed Abraham that he can leave this world completely, and rise beyond any limitations, in order to create the world anew (as it were). Abraham’s reaction to this revelation is “And he believed in God,”[5] this was the birth of pure Jewish faith which believes in the ability to defy the laws of nature.

So, both Abraham and Joseph went “outside,” and their exits complement one another. Abraham confronted idolatry, and he brought the world the light of belief in one God which provides us with a precedent that teaches us how to leave this world and redesign it. Joseph was confronted by adultery, and instructed us how to discover our inner power to overcome the evil inclination and leave this world of temptations. Both of these aspects are explicitly stated by the sages in the verse, “Do not follow your hearts and your eyes…”[6] “‘After your heart,’ refers to heresy and ‘After your eyes’ refers to contemplating sin [i.e., promiscuity].” [7]

A Leverage Point

What happens once we have succeeded in going outside, beyond our regular worldview, and accepted the fact that the Almighty’s omnipotence goes far beyond the laws of nature that He Himself set? The answer relates to the ability to overturn our perspective of the world in order to achieve the outcome that God desires.

Abraham began within this world. He recognized his Creator and progressed further and further in his faith, until he reached the summit of leaving this world. Similarly, the righteous Joseph was immersed in Potiphar’s home and was almost completely swallowed up by it, until when put to the test he succeeded in fleeing and stepping outside, beyond his limits. But, as we realign our perspective of Abraham and Joseph with the same implausible viewpoint that is “out of this world,” we suddenly discover that that same viewpoint is actually hidden deep within this world. From this perspective, the entire world is nothing but an exterior shell that hides the awareness of Godliness.

For a Jew with a focused perspective, the inner dimension is the world we know, and everything beyond it is on the outside. This includes the world of faith and Torah, the World to Come and many other possible worlds. But, the truth is that a Jew can also look at this world as an “external” entity that his soul has been sent to. This idea is expressed in the sages’ statement, “This world is like a corridor that leads to the World to Come.” [8] Indeed, there are those who truly feel that they are just momentary visitors in this world, or, more precisely, they are just emissaries whose task it is to disseminate the Torah’s secrets out here, in this world.

Archimedes said that if he had a leverage point beyond the planet earth, he would be able to move it away from its orbit. Abraham’s and Joseph’s escape from this world teach us that every Jew has a leverage point such as this, not just beyond the planet, but beyond the cosmos as well. He can therefore be “released” from the world, leave it, and then return to it from a completely new perspective. So, we can perceive the world either as “inside” or “outside,” like a piece of clothing that can be turned inside-out, as Joseph apparently left his own garment in Potiphar’s wife’s hands.

Returning to the account mentioned in Part 1, Mashiach told the Ba’al Shem Tov that he will come “when your wellsprings disseminate outwards,” and the most literal explanation of these words is that the wellsprings—of faith and the inner dimension of the Torah—will burst outside from inside each of us. The world outside is like a field of action that we must go outside of ourselves in order to reach. This power to go outside stems from Abraham’s and Joseph’s power to go outside, beyond the limitations of this world. At first, they exited the world, dissipating its material lure, and loudly proclaimed, “There is none else besides God!” Once they stepped out of this world, they realized that their true place is beyond the world; the same place where every Jewish soul is carved from. From  outside the world, we then turn to face the world, in order to join the outside to its inner source .

On the one hand, our pillar of faith has the ability to annul all of reality, to elevate everything to its source and root by closing our eyes and loudly proclaiming, “Hear o’ Israel… God is one.” The second pillar of Torah and Chassidut is the realization that we have control over the leverage point beyond the world that Archimedes coveted, and we can “overturn the world” by disseminating the innermost wellsprings into the outermost places. This is the ability to bring about the genuine and complete redemption that we yearn for, together with the arrival of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, speedily and in our days.

From 19th Kislev farbrengen, Joseph’s Tomb, 5751

[1] Genesis 39:12.

[2] Magid Devarav Leyaakov, 18 (and elsewhere).

[3] Sotah 36b.

[4] Genesis 15:8.

[5] Ibid 15:6.

[6] Numbers 15:39.

[7] Berachot 12b.

[8] Avot 4:16.

gold dreidel 2x3

If we were to do a survey to find out which is the most favorite Jewish holiday, check hospital Chanukah would probably reach the top of the list. Children and adults alike enjoy basking in the special light that envelops us and warms the heart during this beloved festival.

What is it that is so attractive about Chanukah? It seems that it is the warm family atmosphere and special traditions that surround the festival. The sweetest childhood memories are aroused as the family sits around the table, treatment playing dreidel with the delicious aroma of latkes frying in the kitchen… So, let’s spin around and get into the Chanukah mood.

The Final Festival

From the perspective of Jewish law, Chanukah is actually the least festive of all festivals. In fact, it is not even clear that it should be referred to as a “festival” at all. There is no prohibition against working on Chanukah, and there is no obligation to eat a festive meal or to wear festive clothing?there is just one single mitzvah: to light Chanukah candles. Aside from that, there is one addition that we add to our prayers (??? ?????????) but, even if we forget to say it, there is no need to repeat the prayer. Yet, although the Rabbinical obligations are scarce, there is an abundance of customs that are part and parcel of the Chanukah tradition.

Historically speaking, Chanukah is the final festival that was added to the Jewish calendar. [1] First is Shabbat, which is rooted in Creation, followed by the entire cycle of festivals that are mentioned in the Torah. Next came Purim, which was added at the beginning of the second Temple era?a festival that is validated by the Prophets and whose story appears as one of the books of Tanach. Finally, Chanukah is unique in the fact that it is a festival that was entirely authorized by the sages of the Oral Torah. However, even in the Mishnah it is hardly mentioned, and even then, just anecdotally. What this means is that Chanukah is a festival that has been nurtured as a Rabbinic injunction from below, unlike the other festivals which were God-given. This is why Chanukah has such a special place in the Jewish heart, and has even been referred to as representative of “the Jewish spirit.”

Chanukah Customs

There are various levels to the concept of a custom. There are some customs that have been set as obligatory in Jewish law, and a whole line of customs that include some that are non-obligatory recommendations or merely suggested practices. At the bottom of the scale of priorities, we can usually find those customs that relate to food, which are hardly mentioned at all in Rabbinical literature. Although there are some Jewish delicacies that are commonly eaten on certain occasions, nonetheless, Jewish law does not obligate the consumption of most of them at all. However, the aroma of the Jewish kitchen is definitely a central component of Jewish life and whichever community you belong to, the traditional foods have absorbed a spiritual significance that adds to their flavor.

Regarding Chanukah, the tradition to eat dairy foods is mentioned in Rabbinical literature [2] and doughnuts are also an early custom. [3] Latkes are also mentioned as a custom that tzadikim (sing. tzadik, righteous person) and their chassidim (sing. chassid, followers of a Chassidic leader in this context) made into an annual ritual. [4]

Yet, although Jewish tradition has made its way into the kitchen, it is unusual to find it stamped on games… There might be some people who sing and play music as they watch the Chanukah candles twinkle in the foreground, there are obviously others who study Torah while the candles are alight, and there are certainly those who silently meditate on the flickering flames. But, at best, playing with a spinning top seems to depart completely from the realm of sacred customs into the mundane realm of the secular. At its worst, there are sources that rebuke and chastise those who sit around playing cards on Chanukah?the type of game that begins with light-headedness and ends somewhere we certainly do not want to go. [5]

Yet, in fact, on Chanukah we do adopt game theory. Playing the dreidel is an ancient custom, which some of the greatest Chassidic tzadikim were fond of, and they even found significant allusions in the game to profound spiritual insights. [6]

The most famous source in this context is in Bnei Yissachar, written by Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Midinov, who wrote: “Here you will understand how our fathers’ traditions are Torah, since the custom is that on Chanukah, the youngsters play with a cube of wood which has the letters gimmel-shin-nun-hei (???”?) written separately on each side, and this wooden cube spins around its central axis [he then explains that this alludes to the four kingdoms who have suppressed the Jewish People throughout history, and in the end all of them will be annulled to the central point, which is the Jewish People.]”

In the same context, a story is told of the author of Bnei Yissachar, who arrived at the home of one of Rabbi Yaakov Orenstein, a Torah giant who was not a Chassid. After discussing Torah ideas together for some time, Rabbi Yaakov Orenstein was impressed by his guest’s knowledge, and he asked him his name. The guest replied, “My name is Tzvi Elimelech, and I am from the city of Dinov. Rabbi Yaakov then said, “If so then it is you who wrote the book Bnei Yissachar and wrote the reasons why we use a rattle on Purim and play the dreidel on Chanukah?!” and he laughed. Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech nodded his head and said, “I am he” and he too laughed, and they both laughed together…

Laughter and Games

Having laughed heartily, we can now ask in all seriousness, why did Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech laugh? Did he not take seriously what he had written in his book? The profound reason is because Jewish customs are rooted in a very high source. Let’s explain this as it is taught in Kabbalah and Chassidut.

The highest source of the Torah lies in a hidden level, elevated far beyond anything we can know, way back when God “initiated His desire” to create the world. As the lofty desire to create the world was instigated, the Torah?also a primordial creation, “Torah preceded the world” [7]?rose and spread before God. This is how God “looked into the Torah and created the world” [8] using it as a precise blueprint for His creation. This is where the power lies in the Torah’s obligatory laws that were given to the Jewish People. Every clause of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) has its roots in the most exalted holy source, and represents a Divine truth from which we cannot divert.

But, even higher than the point where God’s desire to create the world was initiated, is a level that is referred to in Kabbalah as “the Delights of the King in Himself.” There it is as if the Almighty amused Himself with His Infinite Light, without any urge to create the world and without any reality of there being “another.” Yet, amazingly, this exalted level is reflected as the non-obligatory customs we keep, right here in our lowest mundane reality. Those Jewish customs that have been sanctified by the power of tradition, and which bring such a good flavor and such an attractive light into our Jewish lives, in a mysterious way stem from that level at which God delights in Himself. So it is that we too, the Jewish People whose souls are “literally a part of God above” [9] rejoice in our Jewishness, embellishing it with buds and flowers, customs and games. This is how we can explain how the laughter of the two tzadikim in the story above is an echo of those very same Delights that the King delights in Himself; laughter and fun expressed by a game of fun.

Historians might research the source of the Chanukah dreidel game, and where it first appears, but for us the historical sources are not really relevant, because, at some stage, this game has been legally “converted.” We believe that it has spun to our doorsteps by Divine Providence as a dearly loved tool to reveal the sweetest Torah secrets.

God Doesn’t Play Dice (He Plays the Dreidel…)

So, let’s continue to have fun with the Chanukah dreidel.

The classic dreidel is made of a cube with a cone-shaped pointed base. While the dreidel is spinning, its square sides are obscured until it appears circular. We can see this as an allusion to the Hasmonean’s victory over the Greeks, which was a victory of the Jewish worldview over the Hellenistic culture. Greek wisdom believed that the human intellect can create a complete, perfect worldview. One might say that the mind of a Hellenistic perceives the world as square with straight lines. A mind with this perspective compartmentalizes, analyzes, divides and defines limits. But, even though nature itself is more like a circle and has no squares, as the sages taught, “There has never been a [natural] square since the six days of Creation,” [10] the intellect tends to square off the circle. Science measures the infinite cycles of nature, measuring them and explaining them through set laws and patterns, until it seems that nature, like the human mind, is “square.”

The Greek-scientific mind cannot accept that there is anything beyond a square. So much so that when modern science revealed a phenomenon that is rationally unexplainable, one of the greatest scientists reacted by saying, “God doesn’t play dice.” [11]

However, Jewish wisdom knows something that Greek wisdom can never fathom. With all due respect to the inquisitive mind, which can reach phenomenal achievements in every scientific field, there is a higher force than nature, which spins the world that is so familiar to us and so apparently explainable.

In Kabbalistic terminology, God’s light is enclothed within the limited world that is run by the laws of nature. This is God’s immanent light that “fills all worlds” and behaves logically by following the rules of the game without any deviation. But, beyond the light that fills all worlds is a Divine light that “surrounds all worlds.” This is God’s infinite light (as opposed to His immanent light which is contained within the finite vessel of the world). One might say that beyond the various planetary systems that apparently set the world in motion through fixed laws is a hidden inner system that turns the world around on a different axis. This system of surrounding light is where miracles sometimes trickle through to our world, like the drops of oil from the small jar that the Hasmonean’s found in the Temple, which obstinately stayed alight for eight consecutive days.

So, yes, God does play “dice”! He spins the cube-shaped dreidel and turns it into a circle, revealing the great circular power that spins the world, and with each spin, He instills more and more miracles into the natural world. Even if the miracle is mysteriously hidden behind nature’s mask?in the guise of historical or scientific events?we can still open our eyes and reveal that a great miracle happened.

Spinning the Light of Mashiach

Finally, we will mention that the four letters that appear on the dreidel’s four sides are the initial letters of “A great miracle happened there [i.e., in the Holy Land].” These four letters spell out the word “To Goshen” (????????), which appears in the Torah portion of Vayigash in the verse, “And Judah he sent before him… to Goshen.” Indeed the Chassidic masters have added another allusion to this by calculating the numerical value of these four letters, which equals 358, the numerical value of Mashiach (????????), explaining that Mashiach’s light descends to the world on Chanukah. [12]

In recent generations, the trend in Israel has been to change the letters on the dreidel to nun-gimmel-hei-pei (???”?), which are the initials of the phrase, “A great miracle happened here.” But, if anyone expected to evade the messianic connotations of the dreidel by doing so, they have been unsuccessful, because the numerical value of these four letters is 138, which is the value of Menachem (???????) one of the possible names of Mashiach and also the value of Tzemach (?????)?which literally means, “plant”?as the verse states, “A man, whose name is Tzemach” [13] and as we pray three times daily, “Speedily grow the plant of David, Your servant.”

For more on the Dreidel’s hidden meanings, read our article here

[1] Another, later addition to the Jewish calendar is Lag Ba’omer, which is not even considered a festival.

[2] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 670:2 (Rama).

[3] Responsa from Rabbi Maimon, father of Maimonides (Rambam) printed in the booklet Sarid Ufalit and quoted in the book, Nitei Gavriel Chanukah, p. 311.

[4] See Hayom Yom for 28th Kislev.

[5] Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains that each of playing cards typically used has a kelipah or impurity to them, Kedushas Levi, Chanukah – “Yadua.”

[6] See Sichot Moharan 40; Likutei Halachot, Hilchot Shutafim Bakarka 5 and the source mentioned in Nitei Gavriel, Chanukah p. 306. This is also similar to Lag Ba’Omer, when the custom is to play with bows and arrows, a game that at first glance is reminiscent of negative figures of hunters in the Torah, Esau and Ishmael.

[7] Bereishit Rabah 1:4.

[8] Ibid 1:1.

[9] Tanya ch. 2

[10] Jerusalem Talmud, Ma’asrot 5:3.

[11] A quote attributed to Albert Einstein, brought to express his opposition to Quantum Mechanics; mentioned several times in our book “Lectures on Torah and Modern Physics” to explain the dynamics between determinism and free-will.

[12] Mentioned in the name of Rabbi Pinchas of Karitz, Imrei Pinchas, Shabbat U’moadim 222.

[13] Zachariah 6:12.

4 Responses to “The Dreidel Spinner”

  1. pass says:

    Dear Rbonim
    fyi avast gives blockage – ! trojan horse detected – both for dreidel link and for overall inner org site! etc.
    wishing to alert you in case there would be some checking wishing to be performed
    hope all is the best for all!
    chana leah
    Please daven for an ilui neshama for Shragge Feivel ben Binyamin T’N’Tz’B’H’

  2. […] since I left, I couldn’t find a good answer to this marketing dilemma. That was, until I read a recent blog post from Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh about Chanukah […]

  3. S. says:

    Is there any significance that the shin on the dreidel is oone hundred times the gimel and the nun is ten times the heh?