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The Secret of the Dreidel
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

Jean-Paul Sartre is sitting at a French cafe, revising his draft of Being and Nothingness. He says to the waitress, "I'd like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream."

The waitress replies, "I'm sorry, monsieur, but we're out of cream. How about with no milk?"

The Chanukah Game

There is a lovely tradition of playing dreidel during the festival of Chanukah.

What is a dreidel? It is a four-sided top, containing the four Hebrew letters of Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Shin. The four sides join to form a point, upon which the dreidel spins (1).

All Jewish customs contain profound spiritual meaning. Today we will discuss the deeper symbolism behind the dreidel game.

The Five Components

Jewish philosophy and mysticism teaches that human behavior is driven by four primary factors: ego, bodily urges, reason and a compulsion to destroy.

Each of us has an ego -- a craving for power, self-dominance and self-determination. All of us experience incessant demands from our bodies. We all have the power of reason, the ability to try and make sense out of reality. And, each of us has a compulsion toward evil and destruction. For many of us, this impulse finds expression merely in a dream or a fleeting thought; for others, it is actualized in behavior.

This last impulse is unique in the sense that it rarely displays its genuinely disturbing face to the man who experiences it. Our compulsion toward evil usually disguises its demeanor behind the veil of the other three human qualities. It uses the ego, bodily needs or human reason as a means to explain and justify its abominable goals. Yet at the root of this urge is a simple craving toward evil and destruction, rooted in the human psyche.

Beneath these four familiar components of our personality lies a fifth and deeper dimension, known in Kabbalah as the "higher self," or the "inner self." This is the moral conscience of the human spirit -- the spark of G-d within us -- that drives us to transcend ourselves and attemot to touch the truth of reality. This inner self inspires human idealism and reflects the goodness and integrity of its Creator.

If the four elements of the human engine are detached from the higher divine self, potentially each can become dangerous. A self-serving ego can drive us to destroy those who are standing in our way. Our bodily urges and temptations can plunge us into the abyss. Excessive self indulgence breeds addiction and chaos.

The power of reason on its own allows a person to rationalize any type of behavior and invalidate the world's moral boundaries. With reason alone we may justify cruelty and barbarism. Our rational and intellectual sophistication can even lead us to justify true evil: terrorists are turned into "frustrated militants" and human monsters who burn little children alive are judged as equals to their victims. Reason alone devoid of moral clarity can become dangerous.

Finally, our impulse toward evil may easily compel us to inflict suffering on innocent human beings.

On the other hand, if we open ourselves to the Divine essence of our personality and begin absorbing ts beautiful melodies, we can employ these four components as instruments for our spirituality and moral growth.

Our egos, bodily desires and power of reason may be used in a constructive and good fashion. Even our impulse to destroy can be used as a weapon to eradicate and destroy the evil within ourselves and to put an end to the evil within the world around us.

Four Empires

In Kabbalah, the microcosm reflects the macrocosm and vice versa. Thus, the Kabbalah explains that these four elements of the human psyche were represented by the four global empires that dominated the world in past history (2).

The first was the Babylonian Empire, notorious for its ambition of unbridled power and dominance. Its first king, Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem and exiled our people to Babylonia (present day Iraq), embodied the egotist par excellence (3).

Then came the Persian Empire, notorious for its incessant indulgence in hedonism and materialistic pleasures (4). Achashverosh, the Persian king and husband of Queen Esther, threw a party that lasted for 187 days (5)! Imagine a party that continues for six months straight…

The Greek Empire followed. Its contribution to civilization was the development of logic and philosophy. For the Greeks, the human mind was the zenith of existence.

Then came the Roman Empire. This empire was led mostly by cruel monarchs whose brutality often knew no limits. Rome destroyed the Second Temple, massacred millions of Jews and countless other innocent human beings, but perhaps most importantly, Rome turned brutality into a culture. The Gladiator, the height of Roman sports, was a chilling example of this.

After a Gladiator's defeat, if the crowd gave the signal for him to die there was a ritual to be observed. With one knee on the ground, the loser grasped the thigh of the victor, who, while holding the helmet or head of his opponent, plunged his sword into his neck or cut his throat depending on his weapon. To die well a Gladiator was not allowed to ask for mercy and was not allowed to scream when killed. If defeated but mortally wounded the Gladiator was not killed in front of the audience but was taken from the arena to be executed "humanely" with a hammer on the forehead in private.

Now, each of these four empires dominated the world, and astoundingly, each of them saw Judaism and its carriers as a threat to their very existence and success. Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome each declared war against the people of Israel, attempting to destroy them. Why where these mighty empires obsessed with a tiny minority, the Jews?

The answer is that to their minds, as to the many monarchs and rulers that would follow, the Jewish people represented the “fifth dimension,” which challenged the very way they perceived the objective of life. Hitler put it in these words: “Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish, like circumcision.”

The Jews throughout their entire history were obsessed with the question of right and wrong. They still are. (I know of no other group that is so critical of its behavior as the Jews.) Judaism taught that the most important thing for civilization is not self aggrandizement (Babylonia), nor indulgence (Persia), nor even logic and the pursuit of knowledge (Greece), and certainly not unbridled aggression (Rome), but rather the most critical component of society its unequivocal commitment to a universal morality, based on the presence of a living G-d who cares about human behavior.

The Jews saw themselves as chosen to bestow upon human history the dignity of purpose and to refine and sublimate the ego (Babylonia), the body (Persia), logic itself (Greece) and the evil impulse (Rome) as instruments to serve the moral and spiritual cause.

According to the teachings of Jewish mysticism, one of the primary reasons for the Jewish people living im exile among these four empires was to gain insight and depth into the unique energy of these civilizations and then utilize them as instruments for serving G-d, defined in Kabbalah as "elevating the sparks." But in the process, the clash was usually profound.

The confrontation between Judaism and Ancient Greece can serve as a good example. The most influential thinker in Greece (and perhaps in all Western intellectual history) -- none other than Aristotle -- argued in his Politics (VII.16) that killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote: "There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed . For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state."

Note the tone of his statement. Aristotle isn't saying "I like killing babies," but he is making a cold, rational calculation: over-population is dangerous; this is the most expedient way to keep it in check.

Plato wrote in his Symposium (178C): "I, for my part, am at a loss to say what greater blessing a man can have in earliest youth than an honorable lover ..."  

The Greeks introduced into human consciousness an idea that the human being is the center of all things. The human mind and its ability to understand and observe and comprehend things rationally is the be-all-and-end-all. To the Jews, human beings were created in the image of God. To the Greeks, gods were made in the image of human beings. To the Jews, the physical world was something to be perfected and elevated spiritually. To the Greeks the physical world was perfect. To Greeks, what was beautiful was holy; to the Jews what was holy was beautiful.

Such disparate views were bound to clash.

And they did in the second century BCE. The Syrian-Greek empire sought to Hellenize Jews by force and put an end to the faith of Judaism. Women who allowed their sons to be circumcised were killed with their sons tied around their necks.

The scholars of Israel were hounded, hunted down and killed. Jews who refused to eat pork or sacrifice hogs were tortured to death. The altars to Zeus and other pagan deities were erected in every village, and Jews of every area were forced to participate in the sacrificial services. Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Jewish way of life over the Greek one.

Spin Your Personality

Now we will appreciate the secret behind the dreidel.

The four sides of the dreidel represent the four dimensions of the human psyche: ego, body, reason and evil. This is reflected in the four Hebrew letters of Nun, Gimmel, Shin and Heh, which stand for the words Nefesh, Guf, Sechel and Hakol.

Nefesh, meaning self or identity, reflects the human ego. Guf, meaning body, represents all of the bodily urges and temptations. Sechel, which means reason, defines the human quest for knowledge and understanding (6). And finally, Hakol, which means everything, symbolizes the evil force in man, which, as mentioned above, will cloak itself in everything and anything to reach its goals.

The sharp, almost immeasurable point situated at the foundation of the dreidel, represents the fifth -- and divine -- component of the human spirit. This spark of infinity within us cannot be measured by space and time, and it serves as the foundation and quintessence of each human being, just as it serves as the foundation of the dreidel.

On Chanukah, celebrating the victory of the Jewish way of life over Greek Hellenism, the triumph of divine ethics over human esthetics, we are charged with the mission to kindle our inner G-dly flame, represented by the Chanukah candles. Chanukah is therefore the opportune time for spinning our psychological four-sided dreidel on its point, directing the other four components of our personality and reorienting them as tools to express the pure love and spirituality of the soul (7).


1) These four letters stand for the Hebrew words "Nes Godal Hayah Sham," which means, "A Great Miracle Happened There."
2) See at length Ner Mitzvah by the Maharal of Prague and the many references noted there.
3) See Daniel 2:37-38; 7-4 and Ner Mitzvah ibid.
4) See Kedushin 72a and Ner Mitzvah ibid.
5) Esther chapter 1.
6) In the Holy Land the Shin is replaced by the Hebrew letter Pei. In light of the explanation of this essay, it may be that Pei stands for the word "philosophy," similar to the word "Sechel" in the Diaspora dreidel (thanks to my student Rabbi Yisroel Geisinsky for pointing this out to me).
7) This essay is based on the writings of the Maharal of Prague and the Chassidic Masters (Neir Mitzvah by the Maharal; Benei Yissachar Mammarei Kislev. Cf. Ketzurim V'Hearos L'Tanya by the Tzemach Tzedek to Tanya chapters 1-2).


Posted on December 13, 2007
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