For the Separation of Menorah and State

Secular-Inspired Dreidels Should Be Used To Represent the Holiday

White House Hanukkah: Instead of a menorah, a dreidel should appear as a symbol of the holiday on state property.
Kurt Hoffman
White House Hanukkah: Instead of a menorah, a dreidel should appear as a symbol of the holiday on state property.

By Eliyahu Federman

Published December 06, 2012, issue of December 07, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Each holiday season, the constitutionality of the menorah and other religious holiday displays on government property engenders fierce debates — in traditional courtrooms and in the court of public opinion.

In deciding whether a public display of a menorah outside a government building violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Allegheny v. ACLU (1989), stated that the menorah in the context of a holiday display depicting a star and crescent and Christmas tree has a secular message of cultural diversity and therefore is not an endorsement of any particular religion.

Although Hanukkah has a universal secular message of religious freedom, the menorah is an inherently religious symbol with religious significance. The menorah lighting was a rite in the ancient Temple. The menorah commemorates a supernatural event in which one days’ worth of oil burned for eight days. The menorah is used in conjunction with prayers that invoke God. Prayers, miracles and temple rites are all inherently religious. No one recites blessings over a Christmas tree or a star and crescent, so why would the Supreme Court classify a menorah as secular?

In the decision, Justice Blackmun conceded that the menorah has religious meaning but nonetheless, “its display reveals no endorsement of religion because no other symbol could have been used to represent the secular aspects of the holiday of Hanukkah without mocking its celebration.” While it’s certainly true that Hanukkah is associated with the menorah, it is also strongly associated with the four-sided spinning top known as the dreidel.

The dreidel is a commonly recognized symbol of the holiday. It even has a song associated with its use: “Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.” According to tradition, the ancient Jews used the dreidel to play games when they heard the Greek-Hellenist approaching. This way they wouldn’t be caught studying Torah, which was outlawed by the oppressive Greek king, Antiochus. Unlike the menorah, the dreidel was not used in the temple. There are no blessings recited over its use. It is not associated with anything supernatural or religious.

A public display of a dreidel should avoid perceived government endorsement of religion because of its secular origins and use. Dreidels are prominently displayed in many parts of the country. The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, located in Crown Heights, has an enormous dreidel displayed with Hebrew letters, making it clear to any passerby that it is associated with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Why not display the dreidel as an alternative to the inherently religious symbol of the menorah?

Besides circumventing the First Amendment, the secularization of the menorah does a grave disservice to the Jewish tradition. Hasidic philosophy teaches that the Greek-Hellenists appreciated studying Judaism as a rational discipline, but specifically fought against the traditions that were supernatural and irrational in nature. Taking a symbol like the menorah, which represents that struggle of adhering to faith in the face of an oppressive Greek culture that believed everything should be secular and rational, and redefining it as having secular connotations contradicts what the menorah represents.

There is nothing wrong with public displays of the menorah. Expressing ones beliefs publicly is every citizen’s right, but, in some contexts, a display of a menorah on government property is tantamount to the state endorsing a strictly religious symbol.

Hanukkah represents religious freedom of the individual, but an equal counterpart to that is preventing the government from endorsing and imposing religion as this poses a threat to all faiths. When a display of a menorah is unconstitutional, spinning and displaying a public dreidel would help ensure the important division between church and state.

Eliyahu Federman served as an executive editor of the City University of New York’s law review and contributes regularly to The Huffington Post, the Algemeiner Journal and The Jerusalem Post.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.