Life’s a Gamble

“There is no luck among the Israelites.”

The Talmud


Every few years, the Passover program we attend travels to different locations. This year it went to Lake Las Vegas. Our family brings a Torah as one of the two Torahs used for services. It is fascinating getting a Torah through TSA. The Torah must be carried by hand, and sometimes people recognize it in the airport and come over and give it a kiss. On the plane, it has gotten upgrades to first-class overhead bins. This year, as we landed and prepared to take it off the plane, the stewardess stopped us, “You’re taking a Torah to Vegas? Is that for luck?”

It was a precious moment. In truth, taking a Torah would not have helped on the gambling front because the sages of the Talmud took a dim view of gambling. A known gambler is not allowed to serve as a witness because he may not be trustworthy. Gambling, while not strictly forbidden in Jewish law, is not regarded as a promising occupation. It is compared on some level to stealing [BT Sanhedrin 24b] since the gambler bets on the false seduction of winning. The house is taking his money by lulling him into seeing himself as a potential winner, even though the chances of winning are statistically so slim. Someone [this has been attributed to many different people] once said that lotteries are a tax for the mathematically challenged.

The rabbis were also concerned that a loser would come to resent or hate the winner because the loser never really comes to term with his losses. This illusion can break apart relationships and sustain a view of self that all will be OK with another spin of the roulette, pull of the slot-machine handle or another round of black jack. We can easily recoup what we’ve lost. Just one more time…

The sages made another observation that has modern resonances for states that legalize gambling to bolster revenue and alleviate state debt.  The rabbis of old were wary of the notion that gambling contributes to the local economy even if it comes at a steep cost to “innocent” individuals. Since gambling, according to Rabbi Eliezer Danzinger, “creates nothing of value that endures,” it is not regarded as financially beneficial to a community. It takes its toll incrementally, potentially impoverishing citizens until it impoverishes residents by changing the moral fiber of that community.

Government-run lotteries are a common way internationally to raise funds for important projects like roadworks and community centers. They apparently began to concern rabbinic leaders in the pre-World War II years in Europe when many poor Jews became a bit poorer because they participated in the false hope connected to lottery winning. In repsonsa literature, some rabbis permitted lottery ticket purchases, regarding them as a voluntary tax on individuals to support state-sponsored projects. This defense has carried over into the modern State of Israel where community centers throughout the country have been created with just such funds.

While it is true that the dreidel game we play on Hanukah is a form of gambling, this game has been treated as a recreational form of gambling limited by the duration of the holiday as opposed to a portal into addiction. Entering a casino prepared to lose a hundred dollars for the entertainment value of the evening is not what the rabbis had in mind when condemning it. They were concerned about the long-term impact of gambling on the mindset of the individual and the constitution of the community.

         More profound than any of these reasons is the general Jewish attitude to productivity and achievement. It takes work.  Sometimes people play games of chance to relieve themselves of the burden and responsibility of work. The talmudic aphorism above – “There is not luck among the Israelites” - appears in several places in the Talmud and has been interpreted in many ways. Astrological forces have no power over the Jews. But perhaps it means something else. Maybe it means that luck is not the way that we operate. We believe in a strong work ethic. The playwright Wilson Mizner described gambling as, “the sure way of getting nothing for something.” So, to that inquisitive stewardess: no, we were not bringing the Torah to Vegas for luck because if you open the scroll and read it, you realize the truth about luck. The harder we work, the luckier we get.


Shabbat Shalom