The dreidel (a four-sided spinning top) is associated with Hanukkah. It has four sides, each engraved with a different Hebrew letter:
These letters are an acronym for the Hebrew words, נס גדול היה שם, Nes Gadol Haya Sham—"A great miracle happened there" (referring to the miracle of the oil that took place in the Beit Hamikdash).
In Israel, the fourth side instead shows the letter פ (Pe), rendering the acronym, נס גדול היה פה, Nes Gadol Haya Po—"A great miracle happened here" (referring to the fact that the miracle occurred in the land of Israel).
Traditional Jewish commentaries ascribe deep symbolism to the markings on the dreidel. One commentary, for example, connects the four letters with the four exiles to which the nation of Israel was historically subject—Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.
The dreidel is the centerpiece of a game which is often played after the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, to keep the children interested during the short time the candles are burning. Each player starts out with 10 or 15 coins, nuts or other markers, and places one marker into the "pot". The first player spins the dreidel, which lands with one of its symbols facing up, indicating the appropriate action to be taken, corresponding to one of the following Yiddish words:
Nun - nisht - "not" - the next player spins
Gimel - gants - "all" - the player takes the entire pot
Hey - halb - "half" - the player takes half of the pot, rounding up if there is an odd number
Shin - shtel ayn - "put in" - the player puts one or two markers in the pot
Another version differs in that nun is nem - "take", while gimel is gib - "give". The game may last until one person has won everything.
The dreidel game is played in part to commemorate a game that the Jews under Greek domination played to camouflage their Torah study. Though the Greeks made a law forbidding the study of Torah, the Jews would gather in caves to engage in learning. A lookout was posted to alert the group to the presence of Greek soldiers; if he spotted them, he would give a signal and the Jews would hide their scrolls and begin playing with spinning tops (dreidels) and coins. This ruse gave the impression that they were engaged in gambling, not learning.