Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Chanukah 1 - Dreidel

Like much else in contemporary Judaism, Rava and Abbayei would have no idea what a dreidel is.

Nonetheless, once the concept would be explained to them, they would understand its origins, and perhaps even acknowledge its significance - and this is the best that we can hope for as we strive to emulate them, despite the fact that robes have fallen out of style and that Dougie's has yet to add umtza to their menus.

Regardless of the exact origins of the dreidel, though, it cannot be denied that this practice is one of the most popular ahalachic practices of Chanukah, and one can even go so far to say that it should be viewed as integral to the chag.

Upon deeper thought, though, why is this the case? The frequently stated reason for the practice of playing dreidel on Chanukah is that it reminds us of the Syrian-Greek decrees against learning Torah. When a sentry set up at an underground yeshiva saw soldiers coming to enforce the law, everyone would hide their shav sh'maitsas and R' Chaims and turn their beis medrash into a gambling hall. Why would we want to commemorate this, though? Being that Chanukah is so closely connected to the learning of Torah ("ki neir mitzvah v'Torah or", after all), would it not be more meet for us to treat Chanukah like Shavu'os, for example, and celebrate the holiday by throwing ourselves into learning, or even if we'd rather be more recreational, learning things that we wouldn't learn otherwise? How does it make sense for us to celebrate our ability to freely learn Torah by... not learning Torah?

We see a precedent for this practice by Pesach. Even though we're celebrating freedom, we still mar our celebration by reminding ourselves of the bitterness of the slavery by eating maror and of the poverty of our situation in Egypt by eating the bread of slaves, broken in half in the way of one who repeatedly lives hand-to-mouth. Unless one recognizes the suffering that one has experienced, one cannot truly experience relief. The Pesach offering cannot be optimally experienced until one has fully satiated himself with the wormwood of exile and the blandness of a life that must devote itself solely to mere survival.

So, too, by Chanukah, we celebrate the fact that we are capable of reaching our full potential as Jews without having to worry about external forces that compel us to hold a children's top in one hand as we conceal a sefer in the other. One cannot truly appreciate the Torah even on the simplest level without experiencing a life where one has to fight for every precious word.

Hence, it seems the dreidel can, indeed, be a means to elevate oneself in Divine service. Take out the dreidel, spin it around, watch the money change hands back-and-forth-and-back-again, watch the dreidel expend all of its energy in rotational motion that does not result in any displacement, observe how no matter how many times one spins the top, it does not get any more interesting than the monotonous nun-gimel-hei-shin. And then, take out a sefer and rejoice that we have the ability to put away the dreidel whenever we desire to, and to engage in the ultimate purpose.



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