03 Jul Are Casinos Kosher?
A casino visit can be a fun way to spend your leisure time and money but is it a kosher trip? There is more to discuss than just the greed that energizes many casino goers. We must remember that gambling is illegal in many states because it preys on the poor and the vulnerable. Gambling raises important issues that may bring into question common features of our community. Since, as we shall see shortly, Rav Ovadiah Yosef forbids buying lottery tickets, how can our schools and shuls hold raffles and Chinese auctions? What message are we sending when we elevate gambling into an acceptable pastime?
- Gambling in the Talmud
The primary source in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 24b) is a statement that dice players are invalid witnesses, and a debate in the Gemara over why this is the case. Rami bar Chama says that the problem is asmachta, a failure to truly commit to paying a bet because of a reliance on winning. Rav Sheishes disagrees and says that the problem with a professional gambler is the lack of a job and a sense of the value of money.
According to Rami bar Chama, any time someone places a bet with an expectation of winning (even if unrealistic), he does not really expect to pay the bet. Therefore, if he loses the bet, anyone who takes his money is guilty of stealing. Rashi (Rosh Hashanah 22a s.v. eilu) explains that this is theft on a rabbinic level. Biblically, theft is defined as stealing directly from the victim’s hands. The Sages extended the prohibition to less direct forms of theft, such as asmachta.
According to Rav Sheishes, betting either is not theft at all, not even on a rabbinic level. Alternatively, he agrees that this kind of theft is forbidden but considers it insufficiently obvious theft to invalidate someone as a witness. Rav Sheishes only invalidates as a witness professional gamblers, who do not earn a living through work.
- Shabbos Table Gambling
Another Talmudic passage (Shabbos 149b) gives a person special permission to divide food at a Shabbos meal to his children with a lottery (obviously without any money). You may not even do this during the week to those outside the family because it constitutes gambling. Tosafos (as loc., sv. mai) say that we do not follow this Gemara but the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Shabbos 23:17) follows it. The Tur (Orach Chaim 322) and Shulchan Aruch (ibid., 6) quote this Gemara, as well. Some suggest that the concern is with a potluck meal, in which everyone contributes. If they contribute expecting to win a big piece but receive a small piece, there may be a problem of asmachta.
Regarding dice playing and gambling in general, medieval authorities disagree whether we follow Rav Sheishes or Rami Bar Chama. The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 370:3) follows the Rambam who rules like Rami bar Chama, effectively forbidding gambling. The Rema (Choshen Mishpat 207:13, 370:3) follows Tosafos who rule like Rav Sheishes, thereby permitting occasional gambling. It would seem, then, that Ashkenazim who follow the Rema may gamble for fun while Sephardim, who follow the Shulchan Aruch, may not. That is how Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yabi’a Omer, vol. 7 Choshen Mishpat 6) rules, although he adds that Ashkenazim should also refrain. Many others disagree regarding lotteries.
J.D. Eisenstein (Otzar Dinim U-Minhagim, sv. shach) quotes an interesting discussion about professional chess players. Professional gamblers are barred from testifying in a Jewish court (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 34:16). Do chess players constitute gamblers? He quotes R. Yoel ben Nassan Finkerly of Alexandria who says that since chess is a game of skill and wisdom, it is not considered gambling. Chess players are generally highly intelligent and sophisticated. Therefore, a professional chess player is an acceptable witness.
- Lotteries and Winnings
Rav Gedaliah Schwartz (Sha’arei Gedulah, p. 312) approvingly quotes a responsum by Rav Ovadiah Hadaya (Yaskil Avdi, vol. 8 Yoreh De’ah 5:3) in which this Sephardic authority distinguishes between people betting against each other and a lottery. In a classic case of gambling, one person wins and the other loses. It is asmachta if the person who pays had assumed that he will win. In a lottery, the payout will always happen. Therefore, whoever runs the lottery and pays the winnings does not have asmachta and even a Sephardi can buy a ticket. Rav Hodaya explains that this is why Jews have historically held lotteries to raise funds for charities. This woukd not apply to most casinogames, in which the house often wins.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef (ibid., par. 5) quotes this responsum and counters that, in a lottery, the winnings come from the proceeds of tickets sold. If any purchaser of a ticket assumed he would win, then the money he contributed to the pot is stolen because of the purchaser’s asmachta. He adds that Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (Responsa Rav Pe’alim, vol. 2 Yoreh De’ah no. 30) explains the historical lotteries in that the winning was an object (like in a Chinese auction) and not a portion of the proceeds from the tickets sold.
Rav Ya’akov Ariel (Be-Ohalah Shel Torah, vol. 1 no. 111) offers a similar approach as Rav Hodaya. Without quoting any of the recent literature, Rav Ariel suggests Rav Yosef’s objection and counters that lottery is different because people pay in advance. When you make a bet and do not put money down in advance, you may be relying on your winning the bet. But if you pay in advance, you clearly recognize the possibility of losing. This seems to be the view of Rabbeinu Tam, followed by the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 207:13). I’m not sure that it would help Sephardim.
Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik (cited by Rav Chaim Jachter, Gray Matter, vol. 1, p. 129) points out that these concerns do not apply to charity fundraising. Because giving money to tzedakah is a mitzvah, there is an assumption that people give willingly. Therefore, asmakhta does not apply to charitable pledges and donations (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 258:10). This means that Sephardim may participate in raffles and Chinese auctions for shuls and schools.
III. Moral Concerns
However, some authorities have gone beyond the technicalities of theft when it comes to lotteries and gambling. The Rivash (Responsa, no. 432) decries gambling as “disgusting, abominable and repulsive.” Rav Ovadiah Yosef (ibid.) points out that many poor people spend money they cannot afford to lose on lottery tickets. They think about the highly improbable dream of winning rather than the reality of supporting their families. Lotteries prey on the poor, deepening their poverty and often leading to addiction.
For many people, gambling is a serious addiction. Casinos prey on those with addictions and deepen the financial troubles of those already suffering. When a new casino opens, we can focus our attention on the dreams of many and the newfound fortune of the rare winners. Or we can use this as a teaching moment about the majority of people who threw away money at a statistically negligible dream, about the negative social effects of gambling, and the addictions facing many within our own communities. I do not think that the Rivash would consider casinos kosher.