Skip to comments.Spinning nothing into gold
Posted on 12/22/2011 6:46:24 PM PST by ancientart
This week, Jewish children all over the world will gamble for nuts or coins using a specially marked four-sided top, a dreidel.
In Yiddish, the four dreidel letters stand for words nearly identical to those used in a similar game once played by German-speaking children. Nun: nichts. Nothing happens. Pass the top to the next player. Shin: shtel. Put one extra token into the pot. Hey: halb. Take half the pot. Gimmel: ganz. All! Win the whole pot.
In Hebrew, though, the four dreidel letters aren't just game instructions but an abbreviation particularly appropriate to the Hanukkah celebration.
Nes gadol haya sham: A great miracle happened there. The child's toy now points to the rededication of the once-defiled temple and to the miracle of the burning lamp - and, for the devout student of the Torah, perhaps to something more.
Acrostic passages are common in the Hebrew scripture. Each verse of Psalm 34, for instance, begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and for those who learned their aleph-bet from this Psalm, each letter of the spinning top points to the verse that begins with that letter. Hey, for instance, points to verse four, Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day.
Hebrew letters (and thus every Hebrew word) also have a numeric value. The dreidel letters total 358, which just happens to be the same total as the letters in both nasash (serpent) and messiah.
The dreidel number points both to Antiochus Epiphanes (the tyrannical king who, in 167 B.C., defiled the temple by insisting that he be worshipped there as a manifestation of the god Zeus) and to the promised messiah, a deliverer who would put an end to the work of earthly tyrants.
Jewish tradition insists that the dreidel game goes back to the time to the time of Antiochus Epiphanes himself. Jews studying the forbidden Torah hid what they were doing from Antiochus' soldiers by pretending they were only gambling on a spinning top - something the authorities didn't mind at all.
Some modern scholars dismiss this as a rationalization, an attempt to justify the inclusion of a common secular game into what was supposed to be a purely religious celebration.
Such scholars tend also to dismiss the reverence some Jews have for Yiddish: Writing German in Hebrew letters doesn't make it a holy language.
But this is exactly the way things do become holy. Take an ordinary, everyday object - a candle, a cup or a loaf of bread - dedicate it to God, and it becomes something special.
The same is true with people. An ordinary person - no matter his or her occupation - once dedicated to God becomes something special, something precious in God's sight.
Our lives spin round, and perhaps it seems the top always lands the same way: nun. Nichts. Nothing. But surrendered to God, that Nichts becomes Nes: miracle!
And even persecution can be turned to God's purpose. The Book of Daniel promises that those who persevere in the face of persecutions like that of Antiochus Epiphanes will find themselves transformed, shining like the stars for ever and ever.