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!
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • 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.