Before we rush to change tradition, let’s take look deeper into why things are the way they are
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s why it’s hardly surprising that renewed Palestinian claims to the Land of Israel and the atrocities of October 7 have sparked a growing movement to change the letters that adorn the Hanukkah dreidel to nun, gimmel, hei, peh—emphasizing that a Great Miracle Happened Here (as opposed to There).
But let’s take a breath before we tamper with tradition. It’s not hard to understand how children might never look beyond the superficial message of their favorite seasonal toy. But as we grow older, become mature, and develop sophistication, shouldn’t we ask if maybe there’s something more to it? Doesn’t it strike a dissonant chord that the sages of a people so rich in cultural wisdom and so steeped in spiritual symbolism could have composed no more compelling message than a great miracle happened there?
If the Passover matzah symbolizes exorcism of one’s inclination toward evil, if the custom of eating dairy on Shavuos hints at the sin of the Golden Calf, if the sukkah hut symbolizes the clouds of glory the guided and protected the Jews through their 40 years of wandering in the desert, surely the sages would have incorporated an additional layer of meaning into the superficial refrain of a children’s game. If so, what is the deeper meaning of the letters nun, gimmel, hei, sham?
The Greek domination that opens the story of Hanukkah was only one of four exiles spanning the last 2400 years of Jewish history. Before the Greeks came the Babylonians, followed by the Persians. And, after a brief autonomy following Greek rule, the Jews found themselves subjugated by a power far greater than the sum of the first three: the Roman empire, whose influence still asserts itself upon the Jews until today, 15 centuries after the fall of Rome. But first to Babylon.
Babylon—attack upon the soul
Hoping to thwart the prophet Jeremiah’s prediction that the Jews would return to their land after 70 years of exile, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and banished the people from their homeland. Nebuchadnezzar undertook attacking the nefesh, the soul of Jewish people. By cutting the Jews off from the source of their spirituality — the Temple and the Land of Israel — he thought to sever their connection with the Almighty and nullify the prophecy of Jeremiah.
In fact, he was right. But he was also wrong, for the Jews retained a spiritual connection that Nebuchadnezzar failed to anticipate. Although dispossessed of their homeland and deprived of their sanctuary, the Jewish people could not be separated from their Torah, the spiritual wellspring that keeps the nefesh of the Jews connected to their Father in heaven no matter where they may find themselves scattered throughout the world. Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy culminated with the famous writing on the wall, which the prophet Daniel translated as foretelling the fall of Babylon and the death of Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson.
Persia—the battle for life itself
Only five years after Darius the Mede led the Persian army to victory over Babylon, a power vacuum placed the general Ahasuerus on the throne. A decade later, upon ascending to the position of viceroy, the wicked Haman devised a much more direct approach to achieve his final solution to the Jewish problem. Harboring a personal grudge against the sage Mordechai, Haman plotted to exterminate every Jewish man, woman, and child within the Persian empire. Where the Babylonians had tried to cut off the nefesh of the Jewish people, Haman would act far more boldly to destroy the guf, the physical body of the Jewish people.
By exploiting his influence over the king, Haman manipulated the Jews to disregard the counsel of their spiritual leader, Mordechai. By doing so, they forfeited the merit of divine protection against their enemies. That’s when Haman had his chance. Certain that the Jews were vulnerable, he convinced the king to issue an edict calling for the destruction of the Jewish people.
But the Jews rallied and repented, accepting the counsel of Mordechai and recovering God’s favor. Literally overnight, the tables turned. The guf of the Jewish nation survived, while Haman was hanged upon his own gallows. Shortly thereafter, Ahasuerus granted the Jews permission to return to their land in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy.
Greece—assault against the mind
The most subtle strategy, however, belonged to the Greeks. Learning from the failure of their predecessors, they attempted to destroy neither the Jewish nefesh nor the Jewish guf. Instead, they embraced the Jews with open arms, welcomed the Jewish nation into their empire, then sought to seduce the Jewish people with the glittering magnetism of their culture.
The most dangerous and most insidious weapon ever to be directed against the Jews was perfected by the Greeks: assimilation through an attack upon the seichel — the Jewish intellect and the Jewish mind.
Greek culture celebrated the physical and the material, raising artistic expression and architectural design to previously unimagined sophistication and beauty. The Greeks exalted the human body, their perfectly toned and trained athletes performing Olympic feats naked before adoring and exulting crowds. Indeed, Greek philosophy perceived the human form and the human psyche as the pinnacle of creation, with no higher being and no higher authority to rival the perfection of Man.
In their arrogance, the Greeks created a pantheon of gods remarkable not for their kindness, their mercy, or their grace, but for their lust, vengeance, and spite. The most base human impulses became not only glorified but deified through the Greek gods and the myths extolling them. Inevitably, the external beauty and indulgent pleasure of Greek culture exerted a powerful magnetism over all Greek subjects, and the Jews were not impervious to its attractiveness.
For pagan peoples lacking any commitment to morality and virtue, the superficial values of Greece may have actually moved them toward greater refinement of the spirit. The substance of Judaism, however, calls every Jew to aspire toward continuous self-improvement by harnessing the physical in service of the spiritual. By insinuating their culture of externality into the everyday lives of the Jews, the Greeks undermined the ideological foundations of Jewish belief and Jewish practice, gradually ensnaring the mind — the seichel — of many Jews.
Thus were born the Jewish Hellenists, who sought to marry the aestheticism of Greek philosophy with the substance of Judaism, a union that could only result in the ultimate extinction of the Jew and his culture. But just when it appeared that the Greeks were about to extinguish the light of Torah from the Jewish nation, the Maccabees rose up to meet the threat against the Jewish siechel. Under the command of Judah Maccabee, the Jewish rebels coalesced into an army, drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple, and rekindled the lights of the menorah, restoring the purity of Jewish practice, Jewish tradition, and Jewish culture to the land.
Rome—the sum of our fears
Finally came Rome, a culture that produced no innovations but borrowed liberally from the peoples it conquered as it spread its military and political influence across most of the civilized world. As pagan as Babylon, as vicious as Persia, as materially self-indulgent as Greece, Rome mimicked not only the nations it subdued but also the tactics employed by its predecessors against the most culturally stubborn of all its subjects, the Jews.
Like Babylon, Rome tried to destroy the spiritual nefesh of the Jewish people by destroying the Second Temple and exiling the Jews from their land. Like Persia, Rome tried to crush the physical guf of the Jewish nation through pogroms and violent decrees. And, like Greece, Rome tried to destroy Jewish culture through assimilation, attacking the seichel of the Jews. The Roman strategy, therefore, may be characterized as hakol — a combined assault against the nefesh, guf, and seichel of the Jewish people.
Until today, long after the fall of the empire, the influence of Rome remains. The Jews have suffered through the wanderings of exile, the violence of crusader attacks, the auto-da-fé of the Spanish inquisition, the Cossack massacres of Poland, the Nazi death camps, and the Soviet gulag. Even with the establishment of the State of Israel, the tiny remains perpetually insecure surrounded by hostile neighbors and assimilation remains the greatest threat to Jewish survival.
The secret of the dreidel
The name Hanukkah derives from the Hebrew word chinuch — Jewish education. The greatest defense against spiritual, physical, and cultural attack is to be secure in the knowledge of one’s own beliefs. Commitment to tradition endures only when that commitment is founded on a solid education of cultural thought and sincere observance. The flames of Hanukkah symbolize the light of self-knowledge and the wisdom that comes from knowing what it means for Jews to live as Jews.
The sages implanted the entirety of this philosophy within the dreidel, which does indeed recall far more than the simple formula that “a great miracle happened there.” As Jewish children play their Hanukkah game, the letters of the dreidel remind us of the tactics employed by the four kingdoms that sought our destruction.
The letter nun recalls the Nefesh of Israel, the Jewish soul the Babylonians tried to cut off from its divine source. The letter gimmel stands for the Guf of Israel, the physical body of the Jewish people the Persians tried to destroy. The letter shin echoes the Seichel of Israel, the Jewish mind the Greeks tried to corrupt through assimilation. And the letter hei stands for Hakol, the combined efforts of Rome to destroy the Jewish nation on every front.
But the sages’ message goes even deeper. The numerical value of the letters of the dreidel — nun (50), gimmel (3), shin (300), and hei (5) — add up to 358. This equals the gematria of the word nachash—serpent—alluding to the villainous creature that seduced Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. By manipulating their thinking and convincing them to reject God’s command, the serpent precipitated Man’s expulsion from paradise and banishment into exile.
However, 358 is also the gematria of Mashiach—the messianic descendant of David who whose arrival will ultimately vanquish and replace the influence of the serpent and return the world to paradise at the End of Days. By finding inspiration and wisdom in the Hanukkah lights, we bring the era of the Messiah closer and closer.
Yes, a great miracle did happen there. But to see nothing more than that simple message is to miss the profound depth of the miracle itself, to see the dreidel, the lights, and the miracle of Hanukkah as a Greek would see them. But to see them as a Jew, with all their complexity and substance and beauty, is to truly appreciate and truly commemorate Hanukkah in all its glory.
 See the Book of Daniel, chapter 5
Excerpted from The Spiral of Time: Discovering new insights and inspiration in the Jewish Calendar