Money Lessons From the Game of Dreidel

There are many ways to celebrate Hanukkah, but one of the most recognized and beloved traditions of Hanukkah is playing the game dreidel, and is something I do with my students every year. I firmly believe in teaching tolerance for differences and beliefs, and so I spend a great deal of time exposing my students to different cultures and traditions.

While my students have a great time playing dreidel, it is far more than just a game. In fact, dreidel is a fantastic teaching tool, especially when it comes to money.

Those of you familiar with dreidel already know its many relations to money, but for those of you who don’t, I’d like to break the mold this holiday season by focusing on a non-dominant tradition and the lessons we can learn from it.

I want to share with you money lessons from the game of dreidel.

But first, a little history lesson.

The History of Dreidel

Dreidel originally developed from a gambling game played in various parts of Europe that used a top called a teetotum.

However, the game of dreidel became solidified within the Jewish culture during the reign of the Syrian king Antiochus IV, who ruled what is modern-day Israel in 167 BC (the start of the Maccabean Revolt).

Antiochus had attempted to force the Jewish people to convert and worship the Greek gods by forbidding Jewish religious practice. With this decree, actions such as studying the Torah were punishable by death.

Although still very dangerous, the game of dreidel was developed as a shield for Jews who were illegally studying the Torah. If Syrian soldiers or officials came around, the Torah scrolls were hidden and replaced by dreidels.

Thus, dreidel originated as a way for Jewish individuals to access their religious teachings.

How Do You Play Dreidel?

At its core, dreidel is a basic gambling game.

A dreidel is a four-sided top, with each side displaying one of four symbols. The symbols are letters from the Hebrew alphabet, and stand for Yiddish words.

The four words are:

Nun = “nothing”

Hay = “half”

Gimel = “everything”

Shin = “put in”

Aside from a dreidel, you’ll also need a good amount of gelt (the Yiddish word for “money”) to play the game. These typically take the form of chocolate coins, but real coins can be used as well.

The setup for dreidel is somewhat like poker, except there is no dealer and strategy doesn’t play a role. Any number of people can play.

To start, everyone puts one piece of their gelt into the pot. Each player takes turns spinning the dreidel, and acts according to what symbol they land on.

  • If you land on Nun, you do nothing.
  • If you land on Hay, you take half of the pot.
  • If you land on Gimel, you take everything in the pot.
  • If you land on Shin, you put one of your coins in the pot.

When the pot is emptied or has only one piece left, everyone must add a piece of gelt. Once a player is out of coins they can either be out or ask another player for a loan.

You win the game of dreidel by getting all the gelt, or by whoever has the most gelt if the game is ended early.

Money Lessons From the Game of Dreidel

Aside from being a lot of fun, the game of dreidel also carries the potential to teach some serious money lessons.

Knowledge Is Power

The first of the money lessons from the game of dreidel is more of a general one, but can easily be applied to money.

Simply put, knowledge is power, and it’s important to pursue knowledge even when there are risks for doing so.

Dreidel was born out of necessity. A severely oppressed Jewish population used dreidel as a means to cover up their studies of the Torah, which was an essential element to keeping their religion alive.

Fast forward to modern times, and while we don’t find ourselves being outright banned from pursuing money knowledge, our educational and consumerist systems are set up for us to fail when it comes to money.

We simply don’t emphasize money education in this country, and our capitalist economy takes advantage of our lack of money knowledge. Corporations make money when you buy their products, and lending institutions make money when you accrue debt and pay interest.

Both of these capitalist giants are banking (pun intended) on you being financially illiterate and walking right into their spending trap.

Lucky for us, corporations and lending institutions don’t have the same power that Antiochus did. We don’t need a dreidel to hide our learning, it’s right there for the taking.

We have more knowledge, and the means to access that knowledge, than at any other time throughout history. The educational system may have failed us, but that knowledge is ready and waiting at the fingertips of anyone who wants to take it.

If you like, think of personal finance sites as a great big cyber dreidel. Just spin (search) and knowledge is there for anyone willing to put the time in to pursue it.

The origins of dreidel teach us to pursue knowledge despite the challenges, which includes increasing our financial literacy.

Dreidel, a Game of Chance

Another important money lesson learned from playing dreidel comes from being at the mercy of the odds in a game of chance.

Dreidel is a simple gambling game.

Although the odds are much more favorable in dreidel than in other forms of modern gambling, the players are still relying on chance to either build or lose their fortunes.

Odds, or probability, is a difficult concept for most people to grasp, in part because it’s not very intuitive.

The biggest culprit of confusion with probability concerns whether or not past events influence the likelihood of future events. For instance, if a person flips a coin several times and it comes up heads, they will tend to believe that it is more likely that the next flip will be a tails because the tails is “due.”

This is a gamblers fallacy, because no matter how many times in a row you flip a head the next flip will still have a 50% chance of being either heads or tails. The probability doesn’t change because of past events, but our brains like to organize and rationalize events and so we are often duped into believing that there is a pattern where none exists.

Because probability is so challenging, dreidel can present a simple way to explore probability and gambling concepts without risk of actually losing anything.

A dreidel has four sides, so each spin presents a 25% chance of landing on any of the symbols. You have a 25% chance of landing on Gimel and taking the pot, but you also have a 25% chance of landing on Shin and having to relinquish one of your gelt pieces. These percent chances will not change no matter what has been spun before.

Dreidel can be a very frustrating game. I’ve played before where I kept landing on Nun or Shin, and it seemed like I could never get a Gimel. The important thing to emphasize is that no matter how frustrated you might become playing dreidel, you still have a 25% chance of taking the pot on every spin.

Compare that to hitting the jackpot symbol on one reel of a slot machine and your odds are typically at around 1 in 64, or 0.015%.

However, most slots contain three (or even more) reels, and you typically have to hit the jackpot symbol on all three to hit the big money. This gives you odds of 1 in 262,144, or a 0.00000381% chance of hitting the big jackpot.

As you can see, the odds are significantly more in your favor to hit the jackpot playing dreidel than with slots, which can be used as a teaching point when playing.

Another point of emphasis is not only the chances of winning, but the chances of losing.

In dreidel, you have a 25% of taking the pot, a 50% chance of winning something (Hay or Gimel), and a 25% chance of losing something.

Compare that to whatever 1% minus 0.00000381% is and you’re losing nearly 100% of the time. Furthermore, with real gambling this high losing percentage also means you’re giving up your real money at an extremely high rate.

Thus, while probability is a difficult concept to grasp, playing dreidel presents a simplified version of gambling that can teach not only simple probability, but present the dangers of real gambling in a safe setting.

The Different Sides of Money

The last money lesson taught by the game of dreidel concerns the many sides of money, or more specifically, the many things we can choose to do or not do with our money.

The four sides of the dreidel call for four different actions to be done with your gelt, and represent four sides of managing your money in real life.

In the game, Nun means do nothing, but we also find people landing on Nun in the game of life. Many people are doing nothing with their money (except maybe spending it). People aren’t investing, saving for retirement, or saving at all. Nothing productive is happening with their money, and so in effect they are stuck on Nun in the real-life version of dreidel.

On the other hand, some people might primarily land on Shin. In dreidel, Shin means put in, and the player contributes a piece to the pot. In real life, those on Shin are focused on giving, and may donate their time and/or money to various charities. They may also be generous with their money and time in their own family.

Next up is Gimel, or everything. Gimel is the most desired symbol in the game of dreidel because it means you get to collect all the gelt in the pot for yourself. In real-life, Gimel isn’t nearly as desirable because it represents greed. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be striving to better yourself, monetarily included, but money should not be all that you’re playing for.

Finally, the symbol Hay represent half in the game of dreidel, and those who land on it take half the pot. This is the most desirable symbol in the dreidel of life because it represents a balance between giving and taking. You are working hard and prospering for yourself, but also using your increased prosperity to give and help others. While often the forgotten symbol of dreidel, it represents the most desirable trait in the real-life game of dreidel.

When represented in this way, the game of dreidel is the perfect avenue to teach your students, kids, or anyone you play it with about the ways you can choose to manage your money in life, along with the benefits and drawbacks to each.

Moral of the Story

The holidays are a joyous time of year, but one that is dominated by just a few traditions and topics.

While most personal finance blogs will be talking about ways to save on your holiday shopping, I thought I’d go outside the box and present some money lessons from the game of dreidel.

Dreidel is a staple of Jewish Hanukkah celebrations, and while a very fun game, it can be much more than that.

Dreidel developed as a way to cover up the studying of the Torah, which was punishable by death under the rule of Antiochus more than 2,000 years ago.

A dreidel is a four-sided top with symbols that direct the actions of the spinner. You can either lose your chocolate gelt or win it all depending on what you land on.

The teachings of dreidel extend far beyond the basic game. The history of dreidel teaches us to seek knowledge despite the challenges. Like Antiochus, modern society has been set up to limit financial knowledge, but unlike ancient Israel, we don’t need a dreidel to cover up our learning. We have ready access to whatever knowledge we seek if we only put in the effort to grasp it.

Additionally, dreidel teaches us about probability and gambling through a simplified version of slots. While the odds of winning are high in dreidel, the game can be compared to modern-day gambling to dispel the gambling fallacy that often tricks people out of their hard-earned money.

Finally, the four sides of the dreidel represent four ways we can manage our money throughout life. We can do nothing, give, be greedy, or have a balance between giving and taking.

These are the money lessons from the game of dreidel. Who knew that such a simple top could contain so much financial knowledge.

Will you be adding dreidel to your holiday traditions this year?