Rabbi Yisroel Mangel
discusses what Judaism and the Torah have to say about gambling!
Gambling has become a necessary evil in today’s society for a lot of people around the world-from a casual bet with friends over a sporting event to many thousands of dollars at the poker table. Although many of us have grown up with gambling as a part of our culture, I’m sure many of us, including myself don’t know what the Torah (or Midrash) says about gambling. Could you explain the historical origins of gambling as it appears in the Torah or the Jewish sages? In today’s world, I find myself questioning the ethics of gambling, even if it is a trivial bet with close friends. In that sense, does the Jewish religion at its core believe it is ethically ok to gamble? Is it ethically okay as a Jew living many years ago and as a modern Jew like me living in the 21st century? I hope you will be able to make me understand this question of ethical morality as a Jew.
Dear Jewish Gambler,
Does the Torah permit a to Jew gamble? The question is far more complicated than it may seem. Firstly, what does one mean by "gambling?" After all, gambling can be so many different things—from a casual bet with friends over a sporting event to many thousands of dollars at the poker table. Even playing the state lottery might be considered gambling. And don't forget betting on horses, playing bingo for cash prizes, and, of course, stock-market investing, futures trading, or going occasionally to Vegas for a roll of the dice.
So let's take a look at what the Torah, our "in-house morality manual," has to say on the matter. The Torah itself does not contain text in the original Hebrew that explicitly discusses gambling. However, Halachah, or Jewish law, does make gambling a pretty clear no-no—as long as it falls under the defining criteria of mesakhek b'koovya. This Aramaic phrase, translated literally, means "playing with cube."
The phrase employed in the Mishna, Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin, Chap. 3), Maimonides, and Code of Jewish Law refers to both dice-based gambling games where money is at stake, as well as betting on competing birds much like today's horse-race betting. In chapter 34:10 of the Choshen Mishpat volume of the four-volume Code of Jewish Law, the Laws of Testimony, an individual who is a professional "mesakhek b'koovya" is rendered an invalid witness in Jewish court.
Why would a gambling habit invalidate an individual's testimony? The Talmud itself records a debate between Rabbi Yehudah and the Sages, with the former citing the unproductive, uncontributive nature of wagering money that is immoral, and the latter arguing that gambling is bad period, regardless of one's societal good standing and whether he has a gainful occupation outside of gambling.
As for Maimonides, his ethical writings teach that man ought to do only two things with life: one, grow as a person either through Torah or an applied science or other such gainful discipline, and work. In other words, spending money that neither contributes nor produces anything is verboten.
There is also the issue of belief in G-d. Jews are "believers, sons of believers," as Maimonides puts it. As such, we believe that ultimately, everything that happens to us is put in our lives by G-d. Nothing is by chance. And few things can shake that faith like games of chance. Another reason why competitive gambling is forbidden is because any money you win is lost by your competitor with a heavy heart—money he would have never gambled on had he known he would lose, rendering your winnings morally unclean. In plain English, it's a bit like stealing.
Finally, casinos and other such establishments rake it in plenty in terms of lost wagers, wreaking well-documented havoc in many lives despite a small percentage of players emerging as winners. Because of the casinos' enabling of unhealthy behaviors, we are commanded to not "misaya'a ovray avayra" (support transgressors of [moral] laws). Bottom line? Even though many "gambling activities" are technically permitted by Jewish law, proceed carefully.