A Dreidel is the most recognizable symbol of Hanukkah. It may seem strange to spend a “religious” holiday playing a gambling game, but that’s exactly what we do. The dreidel is a spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side. Outside of Israel, those letters are: נ (Nun), ג (Gimmel), ה (Hay) and ש (Shin), which stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham.” Meaning “A great miracle happened there”. In Israel, the dreidels have : נ (Nun), ג (Gimmel), ה (Hay) and פ (Pey), which stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Po.” This means “A great miracle happened here.” Depending on which letter you land on, you gain or lose a different amount of money (or chocolate coins) with each spin.
This seemingly silly tradition reminds us of a time when worshiping the one true God and studying his word were illegal. Jews hid in caves to study their sacred texts. Tradition has it that when soldiers discovered them, they would hide the scrolls and pretend to be playing a gambling game. Since pious Jews would never spend their time gambling, this was the perfect cover. Whether or not this is historically accurate, it raises some interesting questions:
What is the “great miracle” ?
What would you do if it was illegal to worship or study according to your beliefs?
The great miracle that most people are referring to is miracle of the oil. When the Jews reclaimed the temple after it had been ransacked by foreign troops, they found only one small jar of the special oil that was used to light the lampstand. The flames were supposed to burn night and day, but the jar only held enough oil to last one day. Amazingly, the lamp burned brightly for eight days, until more oil could be made. Was this the miracle?
Or was the miracle the fact that God small bands of untrained peasants victory against all odds, against an army that had more soldiers, better weapons, and even war elephants?
Still others say that the real miracle is the fact that after almost 2,000 years in exile, Jewish people are commemorating these events in Israel. That’s why they say “A great miracle happened here.”
I’d say God was at work in all these scenarios. But I’d say more than that. In our family we say , “A great miracle happened here”. We say it because we mean it. When I think of my brush with death, I’d say a miracle happened. When I think of my husband, whose biological mother placed him for adoption rather than aborting him, I see God was at work in her decision. I’d say my husband’s life is a miracle.
I don’t mean to cheapen the idea of miracles or use the word flippantly. But I also think people often don’t see God at work in their lives because they aren’t willing to acknowledge it. When someone prays for me and I am healed, I call that what it is. When God provides for someone in a way that can’t be explained through natural means, I call that what it is. Hanukkah is a great time to say “A great miracle happened here.” and identify the ways you see God at work. If you believe God is living and active, it’s a great time to bet your reputation on it.
If you want to know God intimately, it will cost you something. He will ask you to take risks or sacrifice something you value. Trusting in a reality you can’t see or fully experience is a gamble.
Which leads me to the next question: What would you do if it was illegal to worship or study according to your beliefs? For many people across the globe, this question isn’t theoretical, it’s their reality. They make sacrifices and take risks to live out their faith. How would your life be different if professing your faith was a crime? What would you be willing to risk? How much are you willing to bet on a living, active, miracle working God?