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November 23, 2013 by William H. Scarle, Jr.

The dreidel and the Hanukkah Menorah are as important to the celebration of Hanukkah as the Christmas tree and the stocking are to Christmas.  Since the first day of Hanukkah falls on Wednesday evening, November 27 and the first day is our American Thanksgiving It might be interesting to look at these two traditional symbols of faith.

The dreidel (Yiddish) or sivivon (Hebrew) is a four sided top.  When it is spun it will stop with one of the four sides up.  On these four sides are four Hebrew letters; a nun, a gimel, a hay and a shin.   These letters represent the phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” or in English, “A great thing happened there.”  In Israel the last word is rendered “Here.”  The reference is to the Maccabean revolt in the year 165 B.C. which regained the independence of Israel from the Greeks for a period of about 80 years.  We looked at that history a few weeks back.

The dreidel provides entertainment for the celebrants at Hanukkah.  A game is plaid where each participant puts into a “pot” a coin or a nut.  At Hanukkah gold foil covered chocolate coins are often available for the game.   Each person takes a turn at spinning.  If the letter nun comes up, nothing happens.  If the gimel comes up the player wins the whole pot.  If hay comes up the player wins half the pot.  If shin comes up the player put a coin into the pot.

It is interesting that so many Jewish traditions have a least a passing reference to the Temple in Jerusalem and its destruction.  The great thing that happened was that the Temple was retaken by the Maccabean army and rededicated to the worship of the God if Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

So it is with the Hanukkah menorah.  The Hanukkah menorah, unlike the regular menorah whose seven branches represent the seven days of creation, including the Sabbath, has nine candles or lamps.  Eight of them represent the eight days of Hanukkah.  The ninth candle, which is often set apart somehow, by being larger or set off to the side, is the “Shamash,” or servant candle which is used to light the others each evening of Hanukkah until all the lights are lit on the eighth day.

It is clear from the Christian Scriptures that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah in the Temple at Jerusalem (John 10:22ff).  Whether the tradition of the miracle of the oil was known in the first century is questionable.  The tradition is that when the Temple was rededicated there was found only one cruse of dedicated oil, consecrated by the priests and with its seal intact.  This would provide only enough oil for the menorah for a single day.  The tradition is that the oil lasted for eight days until fresh and absolutely pure oil could be prepared and consecrated by the priests.  The undeniable fact is that Hanukkah takes the celebrant back to the Temple and is a reminder that the Temple no longer stands.

Light was always connected with the Temple of Israel.  It was the place of divine revelation, the place where YAHWAH chose to write his name.  Solomon dedicated the Temple at Tabernacles (II Chr. 5:3) and it was accompanied by the coming of the Shekinah glory and the lighting of the fires of the alter.  Christians capture this idea with the Christ tree.

It is always wise to look for the truth behind the symbols.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at  END-whs