A spinning tale

In one of my earlier published articles, FACT vs. FICTION, TRUTH vs. MYTH, I shared with readers a few of the myths revolving around the eight day festival of Chanukah. I am not at all concerned if religiously observant Jews agreed or disagreed. I write as an historian and my sources are  facts, like them or not.

Facts do not always please us. A fact that in the early years of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany several leading Jewish industrial companies supported the new regime. It symbolized to them a break from the previous Weimar Republic which was an agent to the great depression of the late 1920’s.

Similarly, the fact that many Hungarian Jews aided in the round-up of fellow Jews who were destined for the railway to Auschwitz is despicable is nevertheless a proven fact. We may not like all the facts of history but we cannot change them.  It seems much easier only to close eyes and minds to the truth.

Back to Chanukah.   In 167  BCE, Antiochous IV Epiphanes ruled cruelly over the land of Israel. His title, Epiphanes, was the Greek for “ great or exalted one” and was mocked by the Jews who referred to him as Epimanes, Greek for a “madman”. The latter title suited most of the Jews of ancient Israel.

In addition to his cruel laws prohibiting Jewish religious observances, he also forbade the teaching of Torah and rabbis who were found guilty of doing so were subject to the death penalty.

In order to find a way of disobeying this command, rabbis would gather young children in the forests and would instruct them in Torah laws. If caught by the Syrian Greek soldiers they would merely explain that they were only playing games.  No sacred books could be found and therefore the death penalty for violating a law against religious instruction could not be applied.

Many centuries later, German rabbis invented a pleasant method of occupying the childrens’ attention while at the same time teaching them the history and customs of the ancient Chanukah festival.

They created small wooden spinning tops, called in German “dreidels”. On each of the four sides of the top were inscribed Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin, each letter representing a Hebrew word:

Nes Gadol Haya Sham…. A great miracle happened there.

For hundreds and hundreds of years, Jewish children in countries around the world thrilled to the excitement of spinning a dreidel on Chanukah. Each letter was equivalent to a number of points and depending upon which letter was the victorious winner in the spinning, the spinner with the highest number of points received a small prize.

In the 19th century with the development of Jewish Zionist settlement in Eretz Yisrael, the custom of spinning the dreidel on Chanukah continued with two changes. The “dreidel” of the German language was now changed to the Hebrew “svivivon” and one of the four Hebrew letters on the top was changed.

The letter “shin” for the Hebrew word “sham”, meaning “there” was now changed to the Hebrew letter “pay” for the Hebrew word “po”, meaning “here”.

Thus Israeli children now recall the “great miracle that happened here”. To maintain both historic truth and national pride, Israelis forget the great miracles that happened “there” and rejoice in the great miracles that happened “here”.

So much can be learned from a small wooden spinning top. So much of our history can be treasured and preserved.

Not “bobbe-meises”….old grandmother’s tales. Only historical facts. What we call proudly, “truth”.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.