In Israel, about 2200 years ago, as part of a systematic strategy to force the Jews to abandon Judaism, the Assyrian Greeks banned Torah study and made it a capital offense. Yet, history tells us that many risked their lives to continue to study Torah and teach Torah to their children. What was their plan? How could they defy the Greek’s decree?
That’s the not-so-humble origin of the dreidel. The children studying Torah would have a dreidel with them as a diversion: if a soldier came by, they would pretend that they were simply playing children's games. As their parents sent them off to study Torah every day, they understood that their child might not return. And yet they sent them, counting on the simple scheme of the dreidel. Imagine a parent doing this today! Why was this the correct decision and why do we celebrate and memorialize that decision by playing dreidel every Chanukah?
The answer might best be understood through understanding another period in Jewish history (described in Tractate Berachos 61b). This time it was the Romans who forbade the study of Torah under the pain of death. Rabbi Akiva, undeterred, publicly taught Torah to all who were unafraid to learn it. One of Rabbi Akiva’s friends asked him, “Akiva, are you not afraid of the wrath of the mighty regime?” Rabbi Akiva responded with the following parable.
There once was a fox walking along the banks of a river and noticed a fish fleeing danger.
“What are you fleeing from?” asked the fox.
The fish responded, “From the nets of the fishermen.”
The fox responded, “Why not come up on to the dry land where you will be safe from the nets?”
“Are you the one that they describe as the cleverest of animals?” responded the fish, “You are a fool! If we are afraid for our safety in our own habitat, should we not be more afraid when we are a fish out of water?”
Rabbi Akiva explained, “We are facing a similar situation. Torah is described (Deuteronomy 30:20) as ‘your life and the length of your days.’ While yes, we fear the Romans if we study Torah, if we do not we will be in even greater danger—we will be like the fish coming out of the water.”
The Torah is the reason why we were created and our entire life’s purpose. If we have everything except for Torah–we have nothing. If we have nothing except for Torah, we have everything.
2200 years ago, many of our Jewish brothers and sisters bent under the brutal pressure of the Greeks. They abandoned Torah study and mitzvah observance. They sent their children to the schools that the Greeks mandated, and those children abandoned Torah as well. The miracle of Chanukah was precipitated by the few who chose to risk their own lives and the lives of their children for Torah. They upheld the Torah and ultimately fought back against and defeated the Greeks. That is the message of the dreidel. Not the secret of the dreidel, but the simplest and most profound lesson. This is the lesson that we drive home each Chanukah when we play the game of dreidel.
We love our children and want what is best for them. We work tirelessly to set our children up for a future where they will have everything. But let’s take a moment and check in, are we remembering the lesson of Rebbi Akiva and the dreidel? It’s our job to ensure that they’re set up for a life full of everything. With Chanukah and the dreidel in the rear view mirror, let's be sure their lessons stay with us throughout the year.