As the name from the German dreihen, "to spin," implies, this is a spinning top (in Hebrew sevivon). This top was popular in medieval Germany; its letters in Latin characters: N-nisht (nothing); G-gantz (all); H-halb (half) and S-shtel (put), were transferred to popular Jewish script and usage. Symbolically, the top recalls the "turnover" of events when Judah the Maccabee's few forces vanquished and toppled the many in Antiochus' army. The natural sequence of events was overturned: the strong were spun into the hands of the weak, as enunciated in the Al-ha-Nissim prayer of Hanukkah.
The letters were also mystically interpreted as alluding to the components of man's being as indicated in the Hebrew: nefesh >— soul; guf >— body; sekhel >— mind; this is hakol >— "everything," all that characterizes man.
It was also observed that the four letters (358 together in gematria) are equivalent numerically to nahash, the serpent or evil spirit. The dreidel is spun to topple evil and to bring forth the messianic era establishing God's kingdom. The Hebrew phrase "God is king, God rules and shall rule" is also the equivalent of 358.
In sum, it was stressed that the world is like a dreidel. Everything is set forth in cycles; things change and spin, but all emanate from one Root. The dreidel reflects the game of chance in life as an on-going event. Its letters are also the initials of the phrase "You redeemed Your very own tribe; Mount Zion" (Psalms 74:2).
The word universe derives from the Old French word univers, which in turn derives from the Latin word universum. The Latin word was used by Cicero and later Latin authors in many of the same senses as the modern English word is used. The Latin word derives from the poetic contraction unvorsum — first used by Lucretius in Book IV (line 262) of his De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) — which connects un, uni (the combining form of unus, or "one") with vorsum, versum (a noun made from the perfect passive participle of vertere, meaning "something rotated, rolled, changed"). Lucretius used the word in the sense "everything rolled into one, everything combined into one".
Artistic rendition of a Foucault pendulum showing that the Earth is not stationary, but rotates.
An alternative interpretation of unvorsum is "everything rotated as one" or "everything rotated by one". In this sense, it may be considered a translation of an earlier Greek word for the universe, περιφορα, "something transported in a circle", originally used to describe a course of a meal, the food being carried around the circle of dinner guests. This Greek word refers to an early Greek model of the universe, in which all matter was contained within rotating spheres centered on the Earth; according to Aristotle, the rotation of the outermost sphere was responsible for the motion and change of everything within. It was natural for the Greeks to assume that the Earth was stationary and that the heavens rotated about the Earth, because careful astronomical and physical measurements (such as the Foucault pendulum) are required to prove otherwise.
A dreidel (Yiddish: דרײדל dreydl, Hebrew: סביבון Sevivon) is a four-sided spinning top, played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The dreidel is used for a gambling game similar to Teetotum. Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin), which together form the acronym for "נס גדול היה שם" (Nes Gadol Haya Sham – "a great miracle happened there"). These letters also form a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: Nun stands for the Yiddish word nite ("nothing"), Hei stands for halb ("half"), Gimel for gants ("all"), and Shin for shteln ("put"). In the land of Israel, the fourth side of most dreidels are inscribed with the letter פ (Pei), rendering the acronym, נס גדול היה פה, Nes Gadol Haya Po—"A great miracle happened here" referring to the miracle occurring in the land of Israel. Some stores in Haredi neighbourhoods may sell the traditional ש dreidels.
One 19th century rabbi maintained that Jews played with the dreidel in order to fool the Greeks if they were caught studying Torah, which had been outlawed. Others figured out elaborate gematriot [numerological explanations based on the fact that every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent] and word plays for the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin. For example, nun, gimmel, hey, shin in gematria equals 358, which is also the numerical equivalent of mashiach or Messiah!
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. In German, the spinning top was called a "torrel" or "trundl," and in Yiddish it was called a "dreidel," a "fargl," a "varfl" [= something thrown], "shtel ein" [= put in], and "gor, gorin" [= all].
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 worshipping idols, but the irony remains nonetheless.
NGSH spinning one direction. HSGN in the other