by R. Berel Wein
The holiday of Chanuka, whose conclusion we now mark, is associated in Jewish folklore, if not actually custom, with forms of entertainment gambling. In Eastern Europe card playing on Chanuka was traditional fare for adults while the younger generation of Jews amused themselves with spinning the dreidel. The origin of these customs is obscure as is their connection to the holiday of Chanuka. Most of the researchers of Jewish customs associate this gambling custom with the fact that when the Greeks searched Jewish homes for the Hasmonean guerilla fighters, the Jews played with dice or cards to distract them and allow the Jewish fighters to hide or escape. Whatever the reason, Chanuka and this type of entertainment gambling became an accepted part of the Chanuka celebrations in the general Jewish community over a millennia ago.
Gambling, in all of its forms, was frowned upon if not actually forbidden by the rabbinic authorities of the ages. Gambling for money was viewed in the Talmud as a form of thievery, since the loser never really makes peace with the losses that were sustained and does not forgive or forget the winner. People who were professional gamblers were disqualified by rabbinic law from being accepted as legitimate witnesses in a Jewish court of law. They were categorized by the rabbis as being unfit for testimony since they "did nothing to promote the benefit of society." Gambling on the sporting events of the time - pigeon races is the example used by the Mishna - was also forbidden as being counterproductive to the society's true welfare. In light of this anti-gambling attitude of the rabbis and Jewish halacha, the accepted custom of recreational gambling on Chanuka must be considered as an anomaly in Jewish tradition. Rabbinic responsa concerning Chanuka gambling, while not necessarily condoning the practice, does not expressly forbid it either. Jewish society apparently took this rabbinic ambivalence as a wink of approval and the custom of Chanuka gambling took hold and even became sacrosanct. After time, even those rabbis who felt the custom to be in error originally came to accept it as a reality of Jewish life.
The question of gambling arose again in Eastern European Jewish society in connection with the government-sponsored lotteries that came into vogue in twentieth-century pre-World War II times. Jews participated very heavily, as the poor always do, (after all, it is the only way that they feel that they can instantaneously become rich) in purchasing tickets and chances in these lotteries. The question basically arose as to what was considered gambling in Talmudic and/or rabbinic terms. Here again, the people ran ahead of the rabbinic devisors, and purchasing a lottery ticket soon became unquestioned legitimate behavior in the Jewish world. The reasoning justifying this type of gambling as opposed to other forms of gambling - such as Las Vegas for instance - was pretty tortured but eventually it was seen as a voluntary tax paid by the lottery ticket buyers to the government. This mitigated the issue of gambling and allowed the poor Jews to lose their money happily at million to one odds in state-run lotteries. The Mifal haPayis - the state-run lottery here in Israel - has hundreds of thousands of religious Jewish buyers every week without a pang of conscience or a rabbinic objection.
Further issues regarding gambling began to complicate the Jewish world especially in North America later in the twentieth century. There the Catholic Church for decades on end sponsored "Bingo" -a mild but fairly addictive form of gambling - as a means of raising funds for its institutions. Jewish synagogues and schools soon initiated their own "Bingo" games to raise funds for their needs. Many rabbis opposed this type of fundraising activity, saying that holiness should not seek to find its support in basically unholy projects. However, the practicalities of the expenses of operating synagogues and especially schools soon overwhelmed any moral objections and Jewish sponsored "Bingo," raffles, and even Las Vegas nights became accepted practices in Jewish institutions in the United States and Canada. The objections raised to this type of fundraising have never disappeared. They have merely been ignored.
Gambling to too many Jews has become an addiction, no less so than drugs or alcohol. Gamblers' Anonymous is as busy as Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the "benefits" of the current intifada is the closure of Yassir Arafat's cash cow casino in Jericho, which absorbed millions of dollars of Jewish money every year during its time of operation. The rabbis sensed all of the problems inherent in gambling and thus wisely attempted to distant Jews from being caught in gambling activities. Playing dreidel or cards on Chanuka is one thing. Gambling on a regular basis is quite another matter, one that is contrary to the traditions and principles of halacha and Judaism.
Reprinted with permission from rabbiwein.com