HMS; 5764-11 Hanukkah III: Dreidles, Latkes and other Hanukkah Customs

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

December 15, 2003

Number 5764-11 Hanukkah III: Dreidles, Latkes and other Hanukkah Customs

Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, but it has long held a strong pull on Jewish minds. Many customs have grown up around the holiday and they add to the texture of our celebration.
The most important customs surrounding Hanukkah center on oil. Because of the miracle of the lights, and the fact that the first Hanukkah lights were oil lamps, the oil that should have burned one day, lasted eight days until new oil could be made, oil becomes one of the themes of the holiday. It should come as no surprise that foods cooked in oil have become central to Hanukkah. Latkes (or their Hebrew name, Levivot) are potato pancakes fried in oil. It seems as if every family has a secret recipe for extraordinary Latkes. Served with either sour cream or applesauce, they are an Ashkenazic staple for Hanukkah dining. Since the founding of the State of Israel, there is a new food on the block for Hanukkah. In Israel, they serve Sufganiot, or jelly doughnuts as a Hanukkah treat since they too are cooked in oil. And while candles are certainly permitted to be used in the Hanukiah, some say that they will only use pure olive oil for their Hanukkah lights.
The history of the Dreidle (Sivivon in Hebrew) is shrouded in some mystery. It is clear that the custom of this Hanukkah game comes from the Jewish Community in Germany sometime in the middle ages. There is a tradition that this game has ties to Christmas. Since on this Christian holiday, Jews were not permitted to trade or engage in business, they took to playing games with dice, cards and dreidles. It was a kind of gambling game that helped pass the time on a day that had no significance to the Jewish community. Eventually the game became associated with Hanukkah and soon we see all kinds of explanations as to what the letters on the top mean. I think it is clear that the letters originally were the “rules of the game” each letter standing for the German instructions for the game: Gimel for “gantz” meaning “everything”, Hay for “halb” for “half the pot etc. Someone clever noted that the four letters could stand for “nes gadol haya sham” meaning “a great miracle happened there” and the connection with Hanukkah was complete. I should note that today, when one buys a sivivon in Israel, it says “nes gadol haya PO” meaning “a great miracle happened HERE”. It is an effort to be historically accurate with the game.
There is a long standing custom of giving gifts on Hanukkah that extends way back in Jewish History. The giving of gifts is an ancient mid-winter custom. While there is no reason that anyone has to give a gift each day of Hanukkah, one can choose to give Hanukkah “gelt”, money, especially coins that can be used to play dreidle. Since playing dreidle is supposed to be fun and not a source of gambling income, the amount of gelt can be kept small. My father used to play a game with us, buying a roll of pennies and covering the first coin in the stack and giving it to the child that guessed closest to the date on the coin. My father could make that one roll of pennies last the entire eight days.
Hanukkah is designed to be a quiet family celebration without the restrictions that come with major holidays on the Jewish calendar. In synagogue we add “Al HaNisism” to the Amidah and we recite Hallel in honor of the military victory of the Hasmonean family over the Syrian Greeks. At home, we celebrate the miracle of the oil and richness of living a Jewish life.
Hanukkah begins this Friday night. We light Hanukkah Candles before we light the Shabbat candles. We wish all of our readers a “Urim Sameach”, a Happy Festival of Lights.

Next week: Prayer I: The Basic Structure of Jewish Prayer

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