Cardplaying was not known in the ancient world. There is reason to believe that card games were first introduced into Europe from Arabia about 1379. The impropriety of card games in Jewish law was derived only by inference from talmudic dicta on
generally. At the age of 14
wrote a celebrated condemnation of gamblers, Sur me-Ra, a dialogue on games of hazard. Later he himself became a gambling addict and in 1631 the Venice community leaders pronounced the excommunication on any member of the community who played cards within the next six years. This was intended to deter him from gambling. Communal decrees (takkanot) were frequently promulgated against cardplaying, and many Jews made ritual vows (nedarim) not to play cards.
Later halakhah generally permitted cardplaying, though the rabbis would never release from their oaths those who had foresworn gambling. Playing cards with gentiles for stakes, however small, was regarded as a venial practice, but card-playing among Jews on joyous occasions such as weddings, the New Moon, Purim, and especially Ḥanukkah, became acceptable. Some even played on Passover (though there was doubt as to whether cards were permitted on this festival in case the cards were made from pasteboard). Also Jews played on Christmas Eve when, traditionally, they refrained from studying Torah.
In modern times Jews have played all kinds of card games. Jewish enthusiasm for sixty-six was the subject of one of Shalom Aleichem's best stories. Whist, poker, bridge, rummy, pinochle, and klaberjass have been popular in Jewish circles. Bridge has been accepted as a scientific game comparable to chess. Many distinguished chess players played and taught bridge, among them
, who was one of the first to consider bridge a science.
Contract bridge became established in 1928 and immediately achieved tremendous popularity, many Jews being prominent in match play. Sidney Lenz (1871–1948) participated in a celebrated marathon bridge contest against Eli Culbertson in 1932 described as the "bridge battle of the century," which was featured on the front pages of American newspapers for a month. In 1949
formulated a new point-count system for bidding. Under Goren's system each player counted points for the high cards in his hands and added additional points according to specific rules. This method rapidly became popular since it provided a series of rules indicating how to bid for almost any combination of cards.
Goren was one of many Jews who represented his country in international bridge competitions. Two Viennese, Paul Stern (1865–1946) and Hans Leist (1881–1948), played for the winning Austrian teams in the European bridge tournaments of the 1930s. Many Jewish players represented Britain and the United States in bridge tournaments after World War II. They included Nicholas Gardener (1906–1989), Boris Schapiro (1913–2002), the brothers, Joel (1908–1991) and Louis Tarlo (1911– ), Kenneth Konstam (1913– ), Harold Franklin (1907– ), S.J. Simon (1902–1956), and Rixi Marcus (1914–1992).
Marcus, the leading lady international bridge player, was a Bridge Grandmaster. Born in Austria, she moved to England before World War II.
The outstanding American players of the 1930s included a group known as the "Four Aces,"
, David Burnstone (1889–1950), Howard Schenken (1894–1979), and Michael Gottlieb (1900–1980), who developed their own system of bidding. Goren and Jacoby became accepted as the leading bridge players in the United States.
Bridge has acquired steadily increasing popularity in Israel, where some of the newspapers carry a regular bridge column. In the larger cities bridge is played in a polyglot atmosphere with English terminology, and Israeli players have taken part in international competitions.