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Courtesy of Dr. Yaakov Levi


קִישוּא – “Kishu” – Zucchini and מְלַפְפוֹן – “Melafefon” – “Cucumber”

During the revival of Modern Hebrew, the term for zucchini was “קִישוּת” - “kishut.” Vaad HaLashon, the Hebrew Language Committee, in its “Kitchen Glossary” in 1939 emphasized that “the English ‘cucumber,’ or ‘chiar’ in Arabic is “kishu” in Hebrew,’ and anyone who called it ‘מְלַפְפוֹן’ – ‘Melafefon’ is in error’.” The same glossary suggests “kishut” for “zucchini,” which is “kusa,” the Arabic equivalent.
The term מְלַפְפוֹן – “Melafefon” came to Hebrew from the Greek “melopepon” (“apple gourd,” or “ripe apple,” shortened to “melon”).

The word קִישוּאִים“ – “kish’im” appears in the Bible, the Book of Numbers, 11:5 ("זכרנו... את הקישואים ואת האבטיחים"), probably indicating “cucumbers.” Onkelos translated מלפפוני.
Rashi, the famous Jewish commentator, explained it as cucumber ("הם קוקומברו"ש בלע"ז"). However, other famous Jewish commentators and philosophers, Maimonides and Bartanura, explain קִישוּאִים“ (“kish’im”) as zucchini (note the close Arabic word “Kusa” for “kishu”) and מְלַפְפוֹן (“Melafefon”) as cucumber (Gurke, ogurec, “chiar” in Arabic).

The conflict among linguists, authors of modern Hebrew literature, and ordinary people continued for decades. So how did we get מְלַפְפוֹן (“Melafefon”) for cucumber and קִישוּא (“kishu”) for zucchini? They say that one of the Yishuv, named Shmuel Cohen Lifshitz, published a booklet in Hebrew in 1911, in which he called zucchini קִישוּא (“kishu”), probably based on the Arabic sound “kusa” (the sound “sh” in Hebrew is “s” in Arabic). Since he did not have a name for the cucumber (Cucumis Sativus), and perhaps based on Maimonides’ explanation of מְלַפְפוֹן (“Melafefon”) as cucumber (“chiar” in Arabic), he called the cucumber “”מְלַפְפוֹן (“Melafefon”). This remained in use, and could not be uprooted from Hebrew anymore!

חָצִיל – “Chatzil” – Eggplant

The term חָצִיל was coined by Rabbi Eliyahu Moshe Luntz in 1897, in his edition of the book “Kaftor VaFerach” by Ishtori Haparchi (or Estori Haparchi, Ashtori ha-Parhi, 1280-1355), which was written in 1322 and published in Venice in 1549. Luntz mentions Ishtori Haparchi’s term “Albadinjan.” Luntz commented that “the term ‘badinjan’ is from Arabic, meaning ‘Satan’s egg,’ because it looks like an egg, however much longer’ note that English and German, among others, also include “egg” in the name). In Arabic it is also called “chaisal,” and therefore it is better to call it in Hebrew “chatzel.”
Later, on December 31st, 1899, David Yelin, in his journey’s story “Le’Eretz Yarden” called it חֵיצָל - “cheytzal” (German “Eierapfel” – “Egg-Apple”).
Luntz suggested the term חָצִיל or חָצֵל based on the book “Sefer HaShorashim” by Rabbi David Kimchi (RaDaK), which mentions the term חַנְטָל- “chantal,” “which is the Arabic term for פָּקוּעָה – ‘paku’ah,’ which is called ‘albajan’ in Arabic’.”
The editors of “Sefer HaShorashim” explain that the Arabic term “chantal” refers to “melongena,” which is the eggplant.
It turned out that this “חַנְטָל- “chantal,” which Rabbi David Kimchi thought is synonym with “badinjan,” is another plant (bitter cucumber), but this did not change the new name – “חָצִיל”!

יירט – “intercept”

Recently, (too) often we’ve been hearing/reading that the Israeli military יירט בהצלחה טילים...  "successfully intercepted missiles…” or חיל האוויר יירט כלי טייס בלתי מאויש “The Israeli air force intercepted unmanned drone,” etc.
The term for “intercepted” is “יירט.”  Where did we get this term from?

The root appears twice in the Bible, if at all, and there is no certainty that (a) the words are from this or the same root, (b) that the two words are related, and (c) what they mean at all.

The Hebrew (Numbers 22:32) is: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ ה' עַל־מָ֗ה הִכִּ֨יתָ֙ אֶת־אֲתֹ֣נְךָ֔ זֶ֖ה שָׁל֣וֹשׁ רְגָלִ֑ים הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ יָצָ֣אתִי לְשָׂטָ֔ן כִּֽי־יָרַ֥ט הַדֶּ֖רֶךְ לְנֶגְדִּֽי. The Hebrew text is unclear. The root of the verb יָרַט can be ירט or רטט (“shake”). One translation is, for example: “The angel of the LORD asked him, ‘Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me’.” (Footnotes: “The meaning of the Hebrew for this clause is uncertain” - New International Version).

The other appearance is even more uncertain (Job 16:11): יַסְגִּירֵנִי אֵל אֶל עֲוִיל וְעַל־יְדֵי רְשָׁעִים יִרְטֵנִי. The parallel word is “יַסְגִּירֵנִי.” The form of this verb, too, is unclear. It is translated in different ways: “deliver,” “hand over,” “give up,” “cast down,” etc.

As always in such cases, an uncertain word gets a new meaning, usually based on context, but also on sound.

Some translated the verb in Numbers as “wish, will” based on the Arabic verb warat. Others gave it a meaning based on context, acronyms or abbreviation, as in the Talmud: יראה ראתה נטתה. This is based on the words in the context: וַתֵּרֶא הָאָתוֹן אֶת מַלְאַךְ ה' נִצָּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַתֵּט הָאָתוֹן מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ וַתֵּלֶךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיַּךְ בִּלְעָם אֶת הָאָתוֹן לְהַטֹּתָהּ הַדָּרֶךְ... וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ ה' ... וַתִּרְאַנִי הָאָתוֹן וַתֵּט לְפָנַי זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים אוּלַי נָטְתָה מִפָּנַי כִּי עַתָּה גַּם אֹתְכָה הָרַגְתִּי וְאוֹתָהּ הֶחֱיֵיתִי, indicating that the donkey turned away from the path. It was also explained from the root רטט, “tremble, vibrate.” Other explained it as “unwanted.”

Maimonides, Nachmanides, and others also explained the verb as “to turn away,” and this meaning was used later by others.

When Modern Hebrew needed a term for “intercept,” it was easy to take this root and give it this meaning.

It is interesting that the Hebrew term broadened the meaning, because of the outcomes of “interception,” and indicates also “destroy,” and “control movement.” That’s what “anti-missile missile” does… not only change direction, but destroy.

עַגְבָנִיָה – “Agvaniya” - “Tomato”

The tomato originated in South America. It was transferred to Europe, probably in the sixteenth century, in which it is mentioned in writings.
The tomato was wide spread in Israel in the nineteenth century, because of the good climate. It was probably brought to Israel from Italy, as its Arabic name “Bandora” indicates. The term “bandore” derived from the Italian “pomodoro” or “pomidoro,” which means “golden apple.” Note that Arabic does not have the sound “p,” and it is replaced by “b.” This term was then used in Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe. Around 1930 it was considered a delicious fruit (though before that there were no good, improved varieties of tomatoes, and the fruit was not actually liked).
Now this red fruit needed a name. Because it was not mentioned in the Jewish sources (of course!), someone needed to give it a name. This was Yechiel Michel Pines, who in his translation of the book on the agriculture of the area, in 1885 called it “עַגְבָּנִיוֹת” – “agbaniyyot” (the singular form appears in the note as translation from the German “Liebesapfel” – “love apple”). This is because the root “עגב” in Hebrew has a sexual connotation of “lust, make love.” This was, as you can imagine, a source of trouble for this name.
Vaad HaLashon, the Hebrew Language Committee, in its glossary (Yalkut HaTzmachim) in 1929 called it “עַגְבָּנִיָה” – “agbaniyya.” Both forms can be derived from the plural “עַגְבָּנִיוֹת” – “agbaniyyot.”
It was no surprise that many in the Yishuv, the Jewish population in Israel at that time, opposed this “non-modes,” “vulgar” term, even though it was coined by a religious, famous person. Among those who opposed the term and banned it was Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the man who revived the Hebrew language. He gave it the name “Badura,” based on the assimilation of the “nun” and vowel shift from the Arabic “Bandora.” This is why the term “עגבניה” did not appear in his monumental dictionary. The main reason: This was compared to the disease which was just called “עגבת” (“agevet,” syphilis) by Y.L. Katzenelson, and therefore became a target for mocking. Now the term “badura” fought and the term “agbaniyya” (and “agbanit”) fought each other in the Yishuv, all over the literature. We can add to this conflict that the fruit was considered non-kosher by many Jews in Eastern Europe, because they believed it had blood in it, because it was used as decoration for meat in butcher shops (mainly on pork!), and they also believed that it was poisonous.
We know which term won. But why is it “agvaniya” and not “agbaniya”? Most likely because it is closer to the verb “agav” (“lust”)!

The Four Species – אַרְבָּעַת הַמִּינִים

The Bible (in Leviticus 23:40) mentions for four plants for building the booths or huts. Like many other Hebrew names for plants (and animals) in the Bible, it is not clear what they mean.
Etz Hadar (עֵץ הָדָר) “magnificent tree” was identified by the rabbis as Etrog (אֶתְרוֹג) – the fruit of a tree called citrus medica. However, the olive tree was considered the most “magnificent tree,” and it is mentioned in relation to the building of booths in the Book of Nehemiah (8:15): “"Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees… to make booths - as it is written.” It is most likely that what one needed to take was a branch from an olive tree, not citrus.
It is also unclear what “Etz Avot” (עֵץ־עָבֹת) means. Literally, it could mean any boughs of any thick tree.

Shabbaton - שַׁבָּתוֹן

Rosh HaShanah is Shabbaton, Sukkot is Shabbaton, but Yom Kippur is “Shabbat Shabbaton” (שַׁבָּת שַׁבָּתוֹן). What is the difference?
“Shabbaton” means that one does not go to work, but it is allowed to light fire, cook, knead and bake for the holiday. On Shabbat Shabbaton any work is prohibited, no cooking and no baking.
The English word sabbatical (an employee benefit, sabbatical leave) comes from the same source - a rest from work – Shabbaton – שַׁבָּתוֹן. This is also the term in Modern Hebrew – Shabbaton.

Yom HaKippurim (יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים) - Yom Kippur (יוֹם כִּפּוּר - Day of Atonement)

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) appears in the Bible as “Yom HaKippurim,” the tenth day of the seventh month. The exact content of the Yom HaKippurim is unclear, and we have no information about the origin or purpose of the holiday. Some have inferred from Lev 16:1, that the day was instituted on account of the sin and punishment of Nadab and Abihu. Maimonides (Moreh Nevochim, 18) regards it as a commemoration of the day on which Moses came down from the mountain with the second tablets of the law, and proclaimed to the people the forgiveness of their great sin in worshipping the golden calf. It is interesting that it is not mentioned outside Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, even though in later times it became an important holiday.

The biblical sources do not indicate that one needs to fast on Yom HaKippurim, neither does it refer to atonement of the people themselves. The actions of the high priest and the “self-affliction” are the only indication.

What is the “affliction” mentioned in the Bible as the reason for the holiday? This is not explained in the Bible. The rabbis, in Yoma 73b, explain the prohibitions which are the affliction: work, eating, drinking, washing oneself, oiling (for cosmetic purposes), wearing leather sandals, and sexual relations. However, again, these prohibitions are not indicated in the Bible.

Tishrei (תִשְׁרֵי) or Tishri (Tishree) (תִשְׁרִי)?

The Jews (more correctly: the Israelites and the Judeans), when they came back from the exile, brought with them a new calendar with new names for the months. The name of the first month comes from the Acadian (or Aramaic) “Tashritu,” meaning “beginning. The transliteration into Hebrew is both “Tishrei” and “Tishri,” corresponding to the rules of sound shifts in Hebrew (i.e. that vowels in Hebrew change by specific rules compared to other Semitic languages). So this is why one can see both terms “Tishrei” (תִשְׁרֵי) and “Tishri” (“Tishree”) (תִשְׁרִי).

Rosh HaShanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה)

The term Rosh HaShanah (ראש השנה, literally "head of the year") is not mentioned in the Bible to indicate the holiday of the New Year (it appears in Ezekiel 40:1 as “at the beginning of the year”). In fact, the Bible refers to the post-biblical Rosh HaShanah as the seventh month, not the first month. In the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is “Yom Ha-Zikkaron” (“Day of Remembrance”) or “Yom Teru’ah” (“a Day of Blowing the Shofar”). This means not only that the term itself, Rosh HaShanah is not biblical, but also the holiday itself in it post-biblical form.

Shalosh Regalim –שָׁלוֹשׁ רְגָלִים

Shalosh Regalim does not indicate “feet” or “legs.” “Regalim” means “(how many) times.” It refers to the three major Jewish festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. The Hebrew term Oleh Regalim (עוֹלֵה רְגָלִים) or Oleh Regel (עוֹלֵה רֶגֶל), therefore, does not mean that pilgrimage has to be done on foot, as many do today, even though it looks like Raglayim (רַגְלַיִם). 

What does סֵדֶר mean?

The word “סֵדֶר” appears one time in the Bible (Job 10:22): אֶרֶץ עֵיפָתָה כְּמֽוֹ־אֹ֗פֶל צַ֭לְמָוֶת וְלֹֽא־סְדָרִ֗ים וַתֹּ֥פַע כְּמוֹ־אֹֽפֶל, which is often translated as “without any order”: “the land of gloom like thick darkness, like deep shadow without סְדָרִים, where light is as darkness.”
First, we do not really know what the singular form of סְדָרים is. From the plural form we can derive סֵדֶר, סְדָר, סָדָר, סֹדֶר, etc. So the word itself is doubtful.
Jewish commentators often translated it as “planets - the star and zodiac system” (Saadiah Gaon Ibn-Janach, and others).
In the Talmud, the word סדר means “custom,” “law,” “regulation,” and also “ceremony” - סדרי נשיאות, סדרי מועדות, סדרי מרכבה, etc.
The first time the word סדר is used for the Passover night is in ספר האורה, which is attributed to Rashi: ובפסח אם אין לו יין מקדש על הפת ואינו אוכל עד שיסדור הסדר ואחר כך יאכל - “On Passover, if one does not have wine, he should say the blessing over the bread and does not eat until he יסדור הסדר (will do the סדר), and then he should eat.” It is also mentioned by Baalei HaTosafot (Pesachim 114a), and in the Piyyut חסל סידור פסח by Rabbi Yosef  Tur-Elam (died 1040 CE).
These rules were kept for the Passover meal - “sets of rules,” close to the original “set” of planets...

Etymology of “מְסוּבִּים” (or “מְסוּבִּין”)

According to “מַה נִשְׁתַּנָּה” there are two options - either “יוֹשְׁבִים” (“sitting”) or “מְסוּבִּים”. What is the difference between the two? “יוֹשְׁבִים” - on a chair, “מְסוּבִּים” on a bed.
The variant “מְסוּבִּין” (with “ן” instead of  “מ”) is a Mishnaic plural form as an influence of Aramaic.
When we think about a person eating while lying in bed we think about... a sick person.
This is an interesting component of the Seder, mainly while eating the מַצָה and drinking the four cups of wine. The term “היסב” as one of the rules for Passover is found in the Mishna (Pesachim 10:1 - ואפילו עני שבישראל לא יאכל עד שישב). The Jerusalem Talmud explains (פס' י, א; לז, ע"ב):
רבי לוי: ולפי שדרך עבדים להיות אוכלין מעומד וכאן להיות אוכלין מסובין - להודיע שיצאו מעבדות לחרות - Rabbi Levi (said): This is the custom among servants (slaves) to eat while standing, and here (during the Seder) they eat leaning - to indicate that they were once slaves and now they are free). The expression of freedom is through leaning during meal!
This was the custom thousands of years ago. The master would lie down on his left, and leaning on some cushions. They would serve him food and drink to his bed, and he would eat with his right hand. This is called in Hebrew “מֵסֵב”.
One can see this in pictures from ancient times. For example, the Assyrian king lying in bed and eating, while the queen sitting on a chair. There are similar pictures on jars from Greece: The man lying in bed, holding his cup in his right hand, and the servant standing next to him, serving him wine. There are similar pictures from Italy.
Usually, only men would “lean,” not women, and not servants. This is exactly what is required for Pesach - show that you are not a slave.
This piece of furniture is called “מֵסַב.” There were short ones and long ones. So, where did they put the table? There were many “designs.”
The Romans used to arrange the beds in a “ח” form, namely one bed on each of the three sides, and one side open. This is “tri -clinium,” meaning “three beds.” This is the same word as “clinic,” because they had beds there. Today, every medical place, even without beds, is called clinic. There is a vet clinic, computer clinic, etc. Think about all other type of “clinic”...
“Tri-clinium” is the origin of the Hebrew word “טְרַקְלִין,” meaning “hall,” “foyer.”
Also, think how many people today lie on the couch, watching  TV, and eating...

What are עוּגות מצות - cakes?

The מַצָה is called “לחם עוני” - “bread of affliction” (or “poverty”).
Isn’t it interesting, that they baked cakes when they were rushing to go, hassle, no time for leavened bread?
Those poor people knew the phrase (attributed to Marie Antoinette) “Let them eat cake (when they [the peasants have no bread])”?
So what was עוגה - “cake” - in ancient times? It simply means “round”! This probably remind you of Choni HaMe’agel (who drew a circle עָג עוגה - not “cake” prayed for rain during a drought and refused to move from within the circle until the rain came - which it did).
So עוגות מצות means “circles of מַצות, rounded מצות prepared for baking. The baked product is called “bread.” The עוגה became bread - מצה. The different geometric forms of the bread are included in the phrases עוגות מצות, לחם מצות, רקיקי מצות, חלות מצות, etc.
Any baked product made from dough which did not become leavened is לחם מצה!
There is לחם חמץ and there is לחם מצה!
לחם מצה was prepared when they needed bread and did not have enough time. An example is the description in 1Sam 28:24 (וַתִּקַּח־קֶ֣מַח וַתָּ֔לָשׁ וַתֹּפֵ֖הוּ מַצּֽוֹת - She - the woman who is a medium and consults spirit, did not have time to cook for King Saul who came to consult with her - took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it - מצות).
Today’s מצות are a specific kind of מצות: רְקִיקי מצות. רקיק means “thin.” A thicker מצה would be called חַלָה. It is the thickness that makes her רקיק מצה.

Did you know? - Aviv (אָבִיב)

“Aviv” (“Abib”) in Modern Hebrew means “spring.” In the Bible (23:15; 34:18; compare Deuteronomy 16:1) it indicates one specific month” - הַיּוֹם אַתֶּם יֹצְאִים בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב (“Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out,” “in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt”) - the biblical name for the month of Nisan (called Nisan in Nehemiah 2:1; Est 3:7).
“Aviv” is not properly a name of a month, but part of a descriptive phrase, because this is the month in which the barley is beginning to ripe. “Aviv,” therefore, is the one stage in the growing of the crop (young ear of barley or other grain, Exodus 9:31; Leviticus 2:14).
This is why Passover must be in the time when the grain starts to ripe. In Leviticus 2:14 this stage is mentioned as “Aviv” - “וְאִם־תַּקְרִיב מִנְחַת בִּכּוּרִים לַה' אָבִיב קָלוּי בָּאֵשׁ גֶּרֶשׂ כַּרְמֶל תַּקְרִיב אֵת מִנְחַת בִּכּוּרֶיךָ” - “'If you bring a grain offering of first fruits to the LORD, offer crushed אָבִיב (heads of new grain) roasted in the fire.”
One cannot bring “fire-roasted spring”!

Purim: What is the origin of the gragger (רַעֲשָׁן)?

We don’t know exactly what the origin of the gragger (רַעֲשָׁן) is.
Some think that it started in the middle ages in Europe, based on the verse "You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek" (Deuteronomy25:19). They understood is physically - write the name on wood or stone and rub them until the name is erased, and thus became to be a custom to make the noise they produced, in order to erase Haman’s memory - as Haman is considered to be an Amalekite.
Others suggest that the custom was taken from the Christians, who used the gragger in the church every time the name “Satan” was mentioned.
In any case, all explanations are speculations!

“Hamantaschen” are not “Haman’s taschen”

The word “hamantaschen” derives from the German and Yiddish “mohn” = poppy seeds, and “taschen” = pockets, Mohntasch.
The filling for this pastry can be something other than poppy seeds.
Since they look like ears, and adapted to Purim=Haman, they are called in Hebrew “Haman’s Ears” - אוֹזְנֵי הָמָן.
Eating hamantaschen is a European custom, and was not a custom among other communities.

Purim: Adloyada

The phrase עד-לא-ידע “ad-lo-yada” (or also “Adalyada, like “אוֹלִימְפִּיָאדָה”) means "until he does not know”. In Israel there is a carnival/parade every Purim,called “ad-loy-ada.”It started in Tel-Aviv in 1920’s, and then they called it “”Carnaval.” In 1932 the organizers decided to have a Hebrew name, so they had a committee with famous writers as judges. Some people suggested “חִינְגָא-פּוּר,” (Hinga-Pur) like “Singapore,” combining “חִינְגָא”  (Hinga)- carnival, with “פּוּר” (Pur) - Purim. Other suggested “ Purimiyada,” based on “אוֹלִימְפִּיָאדָה,”   (olympiada) the Hebrew for the Olympic Games. Bialik, the beloved poet and author, suggested “Purah,” explaining it by the many meanings this word has in Hebrew.
Based on the עד לא ידע (ad lo yada) - “until he does not know,” and “אוֹלִימְפִּיָאדָה,”  (olympiada) the phrase “עֲדָלְיָאדָה” (“עַד לא יָדַע”) - Ad lo yada -  was the winner. His “inventor” was the famous author Y.D. Berkovich.


The word אָמֵן (amen) is a famous word in many languages. As is known, it indicates affirmation, a declaration that something is true, and is often used in the conclusion of prayers and blessings, or when someone agrees with a statement.
What is its origin?
Amen is a Hebrew word with the root אמן (“amn”), meaning “true.” It has the same root like in אֱמֶת  (Emet) and אֱמוּנָה )Emunha(, meaning “truth,” and it appears in this meaning in Isaiah 65:16 (אֱלֹהֵי אָמֵן).
The “n“ dropped (assimilated) as is often the case in Hebrew, such as in יִפֹּל (Yippol) instead of
יִנְפֹּל )Yinpol (.” For readers who are more curious, Amen used to be “*Amintu” (then “*Amittu,” and then “Emet”). Some scholars have tried to derive it from other languages, or even connect it to the Egyptian god “Amon,” but it is very unlikely.“Amen” appears many times in the Hebrew Bible. As such, without translation, it entered Greek, and from there (without translation) it entered many other languages, sometimes even in a double form (“Amen Amen”) as in the Hebrew Bible, or “Amen Ve’Amen” in Hebrew. “Amen” also appears many times in the New Testament (and is also the last word in the New
Testament). Judaism has a number of rules when a Jew needs to say “Amen,” mainly related to blessings.
During prayers, the congregation is prompted to say “Amen” by וְנֹאמַר (VeNomar - “and let us say”),
as was the custom in ancient times.”Amen” is used in a similar way in Christianity and in Islam
(there it is “Amin”).
And let us say…


On Chanukkah, most Jewish institutions decorate their walls with the banner “Nes Gadol Hayah Poh/Sham” (נס גדול היה פה/שם). This banner looks traditional, as though it was taken from the ancient Jewish sources. The phrase, however, was taken from the non-Jews who were gambling and playing dice games, Heaven forbid! The sevivon is one of the oldest toys known. It has also been used for gambling and fortune telling. It
has 4 sides, each with one of the letters Nun-Gimel-Hey-Peh (נ-ג-ה-פ) in Israel, and Nun-Gimel-Hey-Shin (נ-ג-ה-ש) outside Israel, indicating “A great miracle happened here/there.”
The word “sevivon (סביבון), not the game itself, is modern. Jewish children started playing with it (not only on Chanukkah) in Europe, and from there it spread to other countries. For many years, there was no name for this game. In Yiddish it was called “dreidel/dreidle,” treendle/trundle, ”fargl,” or “varfl.” In Israel, the Arabic word “forferah” was used. An old book, אוצר מִנְהֲגי יְשׁוּרוּן, tells us that the Jewish children were playing
with “galgelan” (גַלְגְלָן).
The reason mentioned there is that Jewish children were holding a dreidle in their hands while studying Torah (which had been outlawed) in order to fool the Greeks. If they were caught studying they would say
that they are just playing. The Hebrew writer Mendele Mocher Sforim (Sholem Yakov Abramovich, 1835-1917), in his story “On Those Days” (בַיָמים ההֵם) wrote that “the little children were rolling the chazarzar (חֲזַרְזָ) on the table.” The famous Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) wrote a song for Chanukkah (לִכְבוֹד החנוכּה), and in the first version he wrote kirkar (מוֹרי הֵביא כִּרְכָּר לִי, בֶּן עוֹפֶרֶת יְצוּקה“).No one knows how the word “sevivon” came and put off the other words.
The letters, as mentioned, are the initials of non-Hebrew words. In the island of Sardinia, where many
ancient traditions from the Roman times were kept, there are still sevivonim on which the letters P.N.M.T.
are written or engraved, meaning “Pone” - “put” (your portion in the game), “Nudda” - “zero” (i.e. “you lost”); “Meso” - “halb” (“you won half the amount in the jackpot”); “Tutte” - “all” (you won all the amount in the jackpot”).
In England and Ireland there is a game (four-sided spinning top) called totum or teetotum (latin: “All”)
which was played in the 16th century, with a letter inscribed on each side, representing four words:
T (take all); H (take half); P (put in); N (nothing).
As mentioned, the game “became Jewish” in the Eastern European countries. The letters on the sevivon (the letters N, G, H, Sh) are the German translation of the totum game: N =Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in. In Israel, the letter “sh” (“sham” - “there”) was replaced by
“P” (“poh” - “here”). Jews who dealt with Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) tried to find deep meanings to these letters. Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dinov (1783-1841), in his book “B’nei Yissachar,” explained the letters by the word “הַגֹּשְׁנָה“ (“HaGoShNah” - “to Goshen”) - Jacob sent his son Judah to Goshen. Rabbi Zvi Elimelech connected the word to the haftarah (Ezekiel 37:16) - ”קח לְךָ עֵץ אֶחָד וּכתֹב עָלָיו לִיהוּדָה“ - “take a stick of wood and write on it” - Isn’t it the “sevivon”?
Others figured out gematriot [numerological explanations based on numerical equivalent of the Hebrew alphabet). For example, N-G-H-Sh equals 358, which is the numerical equivalent of  י-ה-ו-ה  מָלַך, י-ה-ו-ה  מָלַך, י-ה-ו-ה יִמלך , and also the numerical equivalent of “משיח” - Messiah!
And there are many other explanations - a whole world of explanations to a little toy of Jewish children!