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    Gambling & gondolas

    In order to publicise the miracle, Chanukah lights are often placed on the window sill or near the front door so that everyone can see them when they pass by.

    These days it does not worry us that the general population notice our festival lamps and indeed we accept every opportunity of explaining the wider message of the occasion. But in the medieval ghettos, where the non-Jews were unlikely to be friendly or interested, the Jews themselves were the audience, and it is said that in Venice there were boat tours of the Jewish district with Jews rowing gondolas along the canals and greeting the array of Chanukah lamps they saw.

    One of the problems of keeping Chanukah in northern Europe was of course the climate. It was often foolish to venture outside in the bitter wintry weather, so indoor entertainments needed to be developed. Naturally gentiles as well as Jews needed things to do inside the house, so both groups developed games with spinning tops and other toys.

    The Jews gave the top a Jewish identity by turning it into the dreidel or trendle (now called a s’vivon) and placing a Hebrew letter on each side – nun, gimmel, hey and shin, standing for nes gadol hayah sham – “a great miracle happened there”. The four letters also indicated the score – nichts (“take nothing”), ganz (“all”), halb (“half”) and shtell (“put it”). Despite the halachic aversion to heavy gambling, this allowed Jewish families a sanctioned game of chance that pleasantly occupied many an evening.

    In 19th century one would have found non-Jews playing a similar game called Teetotum. We wonder whether this was one of the Jewish contributions to civilisation, but it might actually have been the other way around. The name Teetotum seems to be because one side of the top bore the letter T, which stood for the Latin totum – “everything”. When a player spun the top, they hoped they would get the “T” and end up richer.

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