Anyone who has held a lottery ticket knows the thrill of taking a gamble. Personally, I recall the emotional intensity of the poker games in the basement of my friend’s house as a child. With money on the table, even as a 12 year-old, this friendly get together was no longer a game. Five years later, I recall passing through an Atlantic City casino on a family trip shocked to see it full of yarmulke-wearing Jews. I wondered if gambling was an acceptable Jewish sport.
A few weeks ago, the Justice Department reversed its position on the 1961 Wire Act saying that it applied to sports betting but not online gambling. This change will give states the ability to legally operate more online gambling and will inevitably inspire an explosion of internet gambling across the nation. Casino advocates suggest that increasing access and funding to the gaming industry will provide more jobs and entertainment. Is every job worth filling? Clearly, we should not support prostitution simply because it employs more people.
About $5 billion is spent on gambling in the U.S. every year. Those who are addicted to gambling can accrue tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, leading to bankruptcy, poverty, which in turn often lead to prostitution or theft. Further, neglecting to cultivate impulse control can lead to many other types of legal and moral mistakes. Gambling, at its worst, can lead to the most significant dangers. A study found that 17% of suicidal patients in Australia had gambling problems.
Many enjoy a casual game of poker with some friends. However, others have taken the game too far, to the point where gambling destroys them and their families. One need not be diagnosed as a “clinical pathological gambling addict” to know there is a problem. Gambling addictions can be manifest in many ways including certain careers where one is constantly playing the stocks with too much risk.
Statistics show that those with compulsive gambling problems are more likely to harm family members through domestic and child abuse. Further, children raised in a home with parental gambling problems are at significantly higher risk of suffering from depression, behavior problems, and substance abuse.
From a religious perspective, we are told to live by reason and faith (not luck of the dice) and that our parnassah (sustenance) should be attained through work.
The rabbis state that there are two types of gamblers that are untrustworthy and therefore not valid witnesses in a Jewish court of law. These are the dice-player and, according to one opinion, the man who bets on pigeon-racing (Rosh Ha’Shanah 1: 8 and Sanhedrin 3: 3).
The rabbis argue whether gambling constitutes thievery (Eruvin 82). Rabbi Yehuda argues that "Asmachta Kanya,” i.e., gambling is not theft. Since both parties who gamble are aware that they might lose their money, and they accept the terms of the game; the winner legally acquires the money from the loser. The Sages, on the other hand, argue that "Asmachta Lo Kanya" – earning money through gambling, where the bettors believe they will win and the loser surrenders his money halfheartedly, does not constitute a proper legal acquisition. The rabbis thus suggest that earning money through gambling is considered theft.
Tosafot follows the position of Rabbi Yehuda that gambling is not theft, but argues that significant gambling would be forbidden. Rambam, however, is more stringent and argues that gambling is indeed theft (via rabbinic decree). Rabbi Yitzchak Ben Sheshet (the Rivash) argues that even if gambling is not strictly forbidden by Jewish law, it is nevertheless a "davar mechu'ar" – a disgusting activity.
While it may technically be permitted, according to some, to play cards, bet on horses, and participate in a raffle in a social manner (Chavot Yair 61; Arik Responsa, ii, no, 65), when it’s taken to its extreme it should be condemned. Rav Ahron Soloveichik suggested that one has violated the Torah by being addicted to anything. A person shouldn’t run after the lusts of this world and sell oneself to them. We should seek activities of leisure that add meaning to our lives and benefit to others. One may justify an occasional casual, low-stakes game of cards to connect with friends, but gambling as a consistent high-stakes activity is forbidden at most and deeply frowned upon at least.
Our core Jewish values are most relevant not only when we work but also when we play. What games we play and how we play them when we’re “off” serves as one of the greatest indicators of our true character.
Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.