Superficially, dreidel appears to be a simple game of luck, and a badly designed game at that. It lacks balance, clarity, and (apparently) meaningful strategic choice. From this perspective, its prominence in the modern Hannukah tradition is puzzling. Why encourage children to spend a holy evening gambling, of all things?
This perspective misses the brilliance of dreidel. Dreidel’s seeming flaws are exactly its virtues. Dreidel is the moral world in miniature.
For readers unfamiliar with the game, here’s a tutorial. You sit in a circle with friends or relatives and take turns spinning a wobbly top, the dreidel. In the center of the circle is a pot of several foil-wrapped chocolate coins, to which everyone has contributed from an initial stake of coins they keep in front of them. If, on your turn, the four-sided top lands on the Hebrew letter gimmel, you take the whole pot and everyone needs to contribute again. If it lands on hey, you take half the pot. If it lands on nun, nothing happens. If it lands on shin, you put one coin in. Then the next player takes a spin.
It all sounds very straightforward, until you actually start to play the game.
The first odd thing you might notice is that although some of the coins are big and others are little, they all count just as one coin in the rules of the game. This is unfair, since the big coins contain more chocolate, and you get to eat your stash at the end.
Dreidel is a practical lesson in discovering the value of fairness both to oneself and to others.
To compound the unfairness, there is never just one dreidel — each player may bring her own — and the dreidels are often biased, favoring different outcomes. (To test this, a few years ago my daughter and I spun a sample of eight dreidels 40 times each, recording the outcomes. One particularly cursed dreidel landed on shin an incredible 27/40 spins.) It matters a lot which dreidel you spin.
And the rules are a mess! No one agrees whether you should round up or round down with hey. No one agrees when the game should end or how low you should let the pot get before you all have to contribute again. No one agrees how many coins to start with or whether you should let someone borrow coins if he runs out. You could try to appeal to various authorities on the internet, but in my experience people prefer to argue and employ varying house rules. Some people hoard their coins and favorite dreidels. Others share dreidels but not coins. Some people slowly unwrap and eat their coins while playing, then beg and borrow from wealthy neighbors when their luck sours.
Now you can, if you want, always push things to your advantage — always contribute the smallest coins in your stash, always withdraw the largest coins in the pot when you spin hey, insist on always using what seems to be the “best” dreidel, always argue for rule interpretations in your favor, eat your big coins and use that as a further excuse to contribute only little ones, et cetera. You could do all of this without ever breaking the rules, and you’d probably end up with the most chocolate as a result.
But here’s the twist, and what makes the game so brilliant: The chocolate isn’t very good. After eating a few coins, the pleasure gained from further coins is minimal. As a result, almost all of the children learn that they would rather enjoy being kind and generous than hoarding up the most coins. The pleasure of the chocolate doesn’t outweigh the yucky feeling of being a stingy, argumentative jerk. After a few turns of maybe pushing only small coins into the pot, you decide you should put a big coin in next time, just to be fair to others and to enjoy being perceived as fair by them.
Of course, it also feels bad always to be the most generous one, always to put in big, take out small, always to let others win the rules arguments, and so forth, to play the sucker or self-sacrificing saint.
Dreidel, then, is a practical lesson in discovering the value of fairness both to oneself and to others, in a context where the rules are unclear and where there are norm violations that aren’t rules violations, and where both norms and rules are negotiable, varying from occasion to occasion. Just like life itself, only with mediocre chocolate at stake. I can imagine no better way to spend a holy evening.
Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside and the author of “Perplexities of Consciousness.” He blogs at The Splintered Mind.