Object of the Month December 2015
Hanukkah, which begins the evening of Sunday, December 6th, commemorates the miraculous military victory in 165 BCE of a small number of Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, over the oppressive ruling Syrian-Greek government, which had commanded the Jews to worship only Greek idols under penalty of death. When the Maccabees re-conquered Jerusalem, they found that the Syrians had desecrated the Temple. The Maccabees cleansed and rededicated the Temple by lighting its seven-branched menorah, or candelabrum, with a small amount of oil that remained. Miraculously, the oil, enough for only one day, burned for the eight days of the Festival of Dedication—Hanukkah—in Hebrew.
The story of Hanukkah is found in the Book of Maccabees, included in the Apocrypha, and in the Roman historian Josephus’s History of the Jews. Because of its late origin, Hanukkah is the only historically-based Jewish festival without an account in the Torah, or Hebrew Bible. For more than 2000 years, Jews around the world have reenacted the Temple rededication by lighting and blessing oil lamps, and more recently, candles for eight nights.
During Hanukkah, children play a game of chance developed in medieval times using a dreidel, a 4-sided top. Each side of the dreidel has a Hebrew letter on it, נ ג ה שׁ, Nun (Nes), Gimel (Gadol), Hay (Hayah), and Shin (Sham). The letters stand for the Hebrew words that mean “a great miracle happened there.” Players begin with an equal number of tokens and place one in the center. They take turns spinning the dreidel and put in tokens, remove tokens, or do nothing depending on which of the four sides the dreidel lands. The last player with tokens wins. Dreidel is Yiddish; sevivone is the Hebrew word for “top.” Israeli dreidels have the letters for “a great miracle happened here” (נ ג ה פ, Nes Gagol Hayah Po).
One of the dreidels in the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection is an elaborate silver piece designed by Peter Ehrenthal. This dreidel is not a toy, but more a piece of decorative art and is comprised of three tiers of design. The top tier depicts a bearded man lighting a hanging, or bench style hanukkiah. The hanukkiah, or Hanukkah lamp, holds nine candles. Since the light of the hanukkiah may not be used for work or illumination, a shamash, or servant light, is lit first and used to kindle the others. On the first night of Hanukkah, one candle is lit, with an additional candle lit on each subsequent night. Traditionally, the lighted Hanukkah lamp is placed near a window in the home.
The second tier shows four different vignettes: one is a figure of Judah Maccabee holding a sword and a shield, next is a man in a turban lighting a large, branched hanukkiah, a man blowing a horn, and finally a motif of Judith holding the head of Holofernes. Judith, the biblical heroine, beheaded Holofernes, a Babylonian general, while he slept. The story of Judith, a beautiful widow who rescues her people from invaders by enticing, then decapitating Holofernes, an enemy general, is found in the Apocrypha. The story encourages Jewish people in their struggle for liberty and the story particularly resonates at Hanukkah. The Book of Judith, like 1 and 2 Maccabees, never entered the canon of the Hebrew Bible. It was written between the second century BCE and the first century CE. Midrashic literature claims Judith to be a member of the Maccabee family, and since medieval times this book has been associated with Hanukkah. Judith’s story was also popular in Renaissance art—her victory over a powerful enemy made her a symbol of moral virtue and civic strength with whom the citizens of the Florentine city-state identified—Florence, like Judith, had successfully preserved its autonomy against adversaries. The third tier shows the four Hebrew letters, נ ג ה שׁ.
Want to play dreidel with your friends and family? Grab a dreidel and some coins, gelt, or other small items and follow the directions below!
Each player begins with an equal number of tokens and places one into the center “pot”.
Each person spins the dreidel in turn and follows the directions corresponding with each letter.
נ (Nun) – Do Nothing
ג (Gimel) – Take the whole pot! (The group can then choose to have everyone put one in again, or not.)
ה (Hay) – Take half the pot
שׁ (Shin) – Put one token in the pot from your pile
Do you have any cool looking dreidels in your collection at home? Show them off too!