In case you haven't been awake since Thanksgiving, you should know that Chanukkah is coming. And next to lighting the chanukkiah and dealing with Christmas-based anxiety, the most familiar part of Chanukkah is the game of dreidle. Nothing could be more authentically Jewish, right?
Well, maybe not so right. The origin of this top and its gentle gambling is unclear, but two things are certain. First, spinning tops for gambling purposes is not unique to Jews. Even the Romans played this game (as well as many others). Second, its most usual name – dreidle – is Yiddish, a clear indication that its popularity post-dates Sinai by a few dozen centuries.
Whatever it was that Jews exactly did with the original tops, eventually the sides were labeled with four Hebrew letters. Nun, gimel, heh and shin were understood to mean "nes gadol haya sham, a great miracle happened there." The game may have started as a diversion and amusement, but it was given a pedagogical meaning by being plunged into the waters of interpretation. Once it was so ensconced in the Jewish mind, the dreidle and its slogan were reinvented in modern Israel – not a dreidle, but a s’vivon; no miracle happened there, rather the great miracle happened here. And when the s’vivon is labeled with a "peh" (for "po, here") instead of a "shin" (for "sham, there"), the letters no longer parallel the rules of the gambling game, which have meaning only in Yiddish.
The process of absorbing and sanctifying rituals is not limited to incidental diversions like this one. In fact, the entire festival of Chanukkah seems to have gone through the same process. The events of the holiday occurred generations after the date assigned by the Sages to the end of revelation. The canon of the Bible, though not officially closed until hundreds of years later, would not include the story of the Maccabees and their cleansing of the Temple, let alone the miracle of the oil. Yet, when the time arrives to light candles commemorating that miracle, we recite a form of b’rakha reserved for commandments found in Tenakh, including the words asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu, "[God] sanctified us with the commandments and commanded us" to light candles for Chanukkah. Chanukkah had so entered the Jewish imagination that it was inconceivable that God had not intended its observance.
At what point will other such customs become elevated to sacred status? It is impossible to predict. Only the passion and commitment of Jews will produce new traditions and sacred ritual. As you benefit from the imagination of your ancestors this Chanukkah, give some thought to the legacy that you will leave to generations yet to come.