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Some have speculated that gambling on Hanukka recalls an alleged attempt by Hasmonean Jews to hide their rebellious behavior from the intruding Greeks by playing with dice
Q Does Judaism permit gambling?
- J.B., Netanya
A A quick glance at the Web sites of Gamblers Anonymous and similar organizations clearly highlights the deleterious impact of gambling in our society. Judaism has long recognized the ills of such behavior, and as we shall see, Hanukka affords us the opportunity of contemplating how we can end this scourge within our community.
The Mishna disqualifies a dice player from serving as a witness, grouping him within a larger group of people whose greed for money nullifies their credibility. The Talmud lists two potential reasons for disqualifying dice players (Sanhedrin 24b-25a). Rami Bar Hama contends that gambling constitutes theft, since the losing party accepted the conditions without ever believing that he would actually lose his money (asmachta). Rav Sheshet, on the other hand, contends that only a full-time gambler becomes disqualified as a witness since he fails to engage in the settlement of the world (P. 127).
The medieval authorities disagreed as to final ruling in this dispute. Maimonides seems to rule that gambling is a low-level form of theft and, moreover, ostracizes gamblers who do not constructively contribute to society (Hilchot Gezeila Ve'aveida 6:10-11). While his opinion remains ambiguous in other sources (Hilchot Edut 10:4), Rabbi Yosef Karo stringently deemed all forms of gambling as theft (CM 207:13). Based on this, contemporary Sephardi decisors debate the propriety of purchasing a lottery ticket. While Rabbi Ovadia Yosef forbids such purchases (Yabia Omer CM 7:6), contending that this is a form of gambling, Rabbi Ovadia Hedaya rules leniently because he believes that betting becomes illicit only when one directly takes money from a friend (Yaskil Avdi YD 8:5). This argument would similarly permit raffles for specific prize objects.
Many Ashkenazi authorities dispute this ruling, contending that normative law follows the more liberal approach of Rav Sheshet. Some authorities, like Rashi (1040-1105) and Rosh (1250-1328), explain that gambling is not an asmachta since the dice results are entirely random. Since everyone recognizes that they cannot control the results, no one mistakenly believes that his skills give him an advantage. Rabbenu Tam (12th century, France) alternatively reasoned that any bilateral agreement remains acceptable as long as one has the opportunity for future profit.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles affirms this lenient tradition in his glosses to the Shulhan Aruch (CM 370:3). As Rabbi Haim Jachter has noted, the Ashkenazi tradition should not be misconstrued as a blanket leniency, since it permits only games in which the winner is determined randomly. Sports betting pools (rotisserie leagues), for example, might remain problematic under this scheme, since a person believes that his sports knowledge will guide him in avoiding losses. More importantly, many classic sources denounce gambling as morally corruptive or, at best, as containing no redeeming value, and, as such, numerous prominent rabbis discourage or even prohibit one-time visits to casinos.
Many decisors, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, permit light forms of gambling, however, when the proceeds benefit charitable organizations. In such a case, the rule of asmachta might not apply since the person feels comfortable "donating" his losses to the charitable cause. As such, many mid-20th century Diaspora schools and synagogues, following their gentile neighbors, historically held "bingo nights" as fund-raisers. (My brothers fondly recall entering their schools on subsequent mornings greeted by forgotten signs that read, "No children under 18 allowed.")
With increasing awareness of the deleterious impact of gambling addictions, these fund-raising events have become less common as communities recognize the inappropriateness of promoting such behavior within synagogues. There remains no doubt that religious communities have an obligation to stem the scourge of gambling that occurs in our affluent society, particularly amongst teenagers.
This message, however, becomes particularly difficult on Hanukka, with traditions of dreidel spinning and card playing stemming from the late medieval period. Given the anti-gambling sentiments seen in talmudic sources, these customs seem to represent an anomaly from Jewish practice with suspect origins. Some have speculated that gambling on Hanukka recalls an alleged attempt by Hasmonean Jews to hide their rebellious behavior from the intruding Greeks by playing with dice.
More likely, however, these customs stemmed from an unholy abuse of the joy of Hanukka into debauchery. Indeed, as Prof. Daniel Sperber has noted, late medieval texts condemn illicit Hanukka parties that included unseemly card playing and gambling. Two of the most prominent Eastern European decisors of the late 19th/early 20th century, Rabbi Yisrael M. Kagan (Bi'ur Halacha 670) and Rabbi Yehiel M. Epstein (Aruch Hashulhan 670:9), both denounced Hanukka gambling as utterly incompatible with Jewish mores. Given these sentiments, it behooves us to think carefully about how we celebrate the holiday to ensure that this joyous occasion does not encourage unwanted behavior.
The writer, editor of TraditionOnline.org, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.