Dreidels are especially popular during the eight-day Jewish festival of Chanukah. Even though they may seem like novelty items for children, dreidels have a rich and interesting history.
In ancient times, Greek Syrians infiltrated areas where many practicing Jews resided. Over time, the Greek Syrians became more oppressive and tried to convert the Jewish people to their pagan beliefs. However, their efforts were not very successful.
As a result, the Greek Syrians established laws that outlawed ritual commandments and the study of the Torah.
It is widely believed that Jewish people used dreidels to fool the Greeks into thinking they were just playing a game. Instead, rolls of the dreidel corresponded to numerical equivalents that could represent elements of the Jewish faith, according to My Jewish Learning.
Others say the dreidel was a distraction. Children of Israel would learn the Torah in outlying areas and forests. When Greek patrols were nearby, the children would hide their texts and take out dreidels instead, according to Chabad.org.
Today the dreidel is a token of the Chanukah miracle. In Israel, the letters upon the dreidel are Nun, Gimel, Hay and Pay, which stand for the Hebrew equivalent of "a great miracle happened here." Outside of Israel, the last letter is Shin, which transforms the phrase into "a great miracle happened there."